The first thing that may surprise viewers going into “The Bourne Legacy” is that Jason Bourne has been completely relieved of his duties as the main character. In the three previous entries in the film series (“The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”), Matt Damon acted as Bourne, a former contract killer for the CIA who had to reassemble the shattered fragments of his past identity after acquiring a form of retrograde amnesia. Instead of Bourne, we end up with Aaron Cross, a black ops agent with a physical skill set great enough to rival his predecessor. Aaron opens the film by diving straight to the bottom of a freezing lake at his Alaskan training post to gather some special colored pills.
Aaron Cross is portrayed by Jeremy Renner, coming on the heels of his supporting work in another action-thriller “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and those pills he’s swimming for are imperative towards his development into a first-rate agent. Every subject of Operation Outcome is administered with a supply of blue and green supplements (suspiciously shaped like guitar picks) to sharpen both their cognitive capabilities and their physical dexterity. In other words, these tests subjects are being brought up to be virtually unstoppable, just like Jason Bourne.
The CIA, meanwhile, is currently experiencing a crisis. Following the events in “The Bourne Ultimatum” in which both the Treadstone Project and Operation Blackbriar were exposed courtesy of Jason Bourne, several CIA workers (including Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, and David Strathairn) are yanked aside for FBI questioning. The head of CIA operations, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), orders that all action programs be terminated immediately. The agents from all parts of the world are assigned with a new yellow pill that causes death soon after ingestion.
To eliminate Cross, however, an entire missile is sent to blow him (as well as the entire location) to smithereens. But do you think that stops him? No way! After fishing the tracking device out of his body using antiquated surgical techniques and fighting off some Alaskan wolves a la “The Grey,” Cross prevents the assassination of Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) planned by a couple of the CIA’s hired guns.
Shearing is a lab technician for Steristyn Morlanta, the research facility responsible for synthesizing the special drugs, which were then dispensed to operatives. But just like everyone else, she is now a target on the CIA’s “to kill”-list because of her knowledge and involvement with the various Outcome programs. She’s also shook up from a recent traumatic occurrence wherein a fellow scientist (Zeljko Ivanek) launched a massacre in the laboratory. This sequence acts as the film’s most thrilling and provocative moment, ably stirring up tension and mounting anxiety.
Cross and Shearing form a partnership with each other, and much of the film is spent on getting pills so that Cross can “viral off,” or permanently maintain the effects of the medications. This requires both of them to make travel plans to Manila (as in, the capital of the Philippines), the city in which the chemicals are contained. Though a simple change in geography obviously won’t be enough to dampen Byers’ will to eradicate Cross and Shearing.
In typical “Bourne” fashion, the plot isn’t particularly the focus of the film and functions more as a tangled-up excuse to fasten together action sequences. Fair enough. The action is well-done, kinetic and fast-paced; just the way fans like it. The previous films in the series, as well as this one, developed and achieved a happy medium in between the classy, sophisticated espionage thriller (see “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and explosive blockbuster action entertainment (see “Mission: Impossible” series).
But boy, is it long-winded, considering the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time and the deceptively simple goal (find pills, power up). Frenetic and visceral as the action scenes may be, they can only conceal the film’s lack of an agenda for so long. By the time the film’s biggest setpiece arrives in the form of a motorcycle chase sequence through Manila, I felt like I’d had enough thrillers for one day. As far as pacing goes, dull moments are a rarity. But in regards to plotting, it’s simultaneously frustrating in its convolution and underwhelming in its minimalism.
“The Bourne Legacy” is far from the worst film of its type playing in theaters right now, because let’s face it: as long as “Total Recall” is making money, it won’t see much competition. But for a movie that almost always feels exciting as it unfolds onscreen, it disappears from the mind rather quickly and leaves the viewer with not much to take away. Similar to cotton candy, it’s sweet while it lasts but seems like empty calories in hindsight.