By the previous standards of the Bourne franchise — which we all thought had concluded with 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum — The Bourne Legacy is a decidedly B-team affair. Gone are star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, replaced by new lead Jeremy Renner and director Tony Gilroy (who wrote the earlier films and has since become a successful director himself, with the somewhat overrated Michael Clayton and the somewhat underrated Duplicity). But Legacy turns out to be less a franchise extension (let's not use that dreaded word reboot) than an alternate take on a successful series. And in some aspects, it — like its hero — stands better alone.
Gilroy's movies make a fetish of complexity, so this new film is positioned as a B storyline that unfolds simultaneously with Ultimatum's third act. You might need a refresher: That's when Jason Bourne, who here remains unseen, undoes the secret program that created him. With government honchos now worried that their under-the-radar intelligence operation is about to be uncovered, they move to terminate it — by offing, with ruthless efficiency, its affiliated scientists and agents around the world (some of whom are in the midst of providing valuable intelligence to the United States).
Attempting to escape the carnage are Aaron Cross (Renner), a super-spy recently in from the wilderness, and Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist whom Cross befriends in an attempt to procure some mind-altering drugs. The government has been feeding Cross a blue pill to keep his senses sharp, and he has run out; without more (The Bourne Renewal?), he risks shutting down and becoming ... well, something, though it's unclear what, exactly.
So our hero is an uncharismatic addict about whom we know nothing, except that he is absolutely not Matt Damon. And yet it's hard not to root for Renner. It's a Bourne movie, so his ass-kicking abilities are never in doubt, but there's a certain ordinary-guy intensity to his alt-Bourne. And he even has decent chemistry with Weisz.
By asking to be placed in the context of the earlier Bourne films, though, Legacy does itself no favors. Tonally, it works a lot better on its own. More sober and deliberate than its predecessors, it's less about heroism and action and more about process, which appears to be Gilroy's main obsession as a director. Much as he did with Michael Clayton, he focuses here on the way fear percolates through a system, and he handles the screenplay's multiple story threads (Gilroy and Dan Gilroy are its co-writers) with genuine dexterity. The evil is more diffuse — people may be getting killed, but the pencil pushers in government offices stay detached from what's going on, even when they're watching a drone strike. Gilroy shows us a system self-destructing, with a hero just trying to get out of the way.
That's a hell of an idea to hang an action franchise on, and it's hard to tell if The Bourne Legacy is this series' death rattle or a successful reinvention. I'm hoping for the latter. In its methodical way, this unneeded, unwanted sequel is more riveting than it has any right to be.