Maybe Bourne is the new Bond, if you can accept that now Jeremy Renner, instead of Matt Damon, is playing a non-Bourne lead character in a movie called "The Bourne Legacy." The legacy of Bourne, apparently, is to get a bunch of his peers whacked. Turns out there was a whole spider's nest of government programs that not only trained the most lethal, unstoppable undercover agents in the world, it built them with gene treatments and neuroenhancers and, uh, viruses and cognitive something and ... anyway, science! The shenanigans Bourne pulled in the first three "Bourne" movies leads Edward Norton's super-spook character in this film to declare that this other program, the one that created Renner's agent Aaron Cross, must be "burned to the ground." Thus this movie with Bourne in the title is about the U.S. government trying to kill anyone who resembles Bourne. Repeat: It's a Bourne-less "Bourne" film about extirpating anything Bourne-like.
Trouble is, in the age of satellites and drone strikes, most of the real cat-and-mouse action between Cross and the covert agencies takes place at such a physical remove that it's almost as if two parallel movies are unfolding. In Cross' world, he's fending off Alaskan wolves and smuggling himself around the States. In covert-ops world, Machiavellian nerds are sifting through data in bunker-like computer hive, trying to pinpoint Cross. Neither side has any direct contact with the other. Intellectually, it looks neat. Emotionally it's hard to get deeply invested when the protagonist is racing like a human cannonball and the antagonist is hunkered in a Mars rover command room.
Cross does take a crucial detour to Maryland to save (just in the nick of time!) a scientist by name of Marta (Rachel Weisz). After an incident at her lab, where much of the medical voodoo for Cross and his super-agent ilk goes down, she's clearly going to be a target. She and Cross flee and make a dash for the Far East. All kinds of escapes ensue: They have to escape from security guards, then from a factory, then from local cops, then from a silent assassin (Louis Ozawa Changchien), who's as relentless as the liquid terminator in "T2." The endless chases and relentless surveillance give "The Bourne Legacy" the feel of a Tex Avery cartoon with a dash of "1984." The pace is so frenetic that even inside 135 minutes the story feels short. After an admittedly awesome if interminable road chase, the movie doesn't end so much as simply signal a pit stop before the inevitable sequel.
Tony Gilroy directs (and shares the screenwriting credit with brother Dan Gilroy) after writing the first three "Bourne" films. He watched enough of Paul Greengrass' direction in the other "Bourne" installments to have picked up the tics: the duck-and-weave cinematography, the long overhead pans of rooftop running, the continual and amorphous action-movie score that heightens the drama even of such moments as boarding an airplane. He inflicts some truly terrible ideas onto Cross — watch him wrestle a live wolf! — and expects him to MacGyver his way out of other tight spots. It's fun and all, but he never gives Cross much to decide in the way of moral or even tactical quandaries. The character seems to have only slightly more free will than a torpedo.
Renner, for his part, acquits himself well. He and Weisz manage to develop some foxhole chemistry as they run for their lives over and over and over again. He's generally likeable. He might even be around for another couple of movies, but then what? He drops off the grid, and some other agent is Bourne again, with the camera shaking, and with the audience barely stirred.