By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Easily the most exciting and unexpectedly the most interesting action movie of the summer, “The Bourne Legacy” also is the best Bourne installment ever. This is a two-hours-plus thriller that genuinely thrills.
Matt Damon, who starred as memory-impaired assassin Jason Bourne in the franchise’s previous three installments, plays the man who isn’t there this time around. Although Bourne is glimpsed only as a still photo in a TV news story, however, his presence definitely is felt. His exposure of bad doings in the US intelligence community in 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” has inspired a fatally thorough attempt to eliminate everyone connected with the behavior-modification programs that produced Bourne and agents like him.
As one of those unaware targets, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is a spy who literally comes in from the cold. First seen emerging from an Alaskan lake on a solo (and incredibly scenic) survival-training exercise, Cross realizes something is up after narrowly avoiding being killed by a pair of drone missiles.
Meanwhile in Maryland, research scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) and others who keep medical tabs on the pharmaceutically enhanced agents also come under fire. A locked-laboratory massacre by a chemically controlled killer is as chillingly suspenseful as a later high-caliber home invasion.
When killing-machine Cross and scared-silly Shearing end up on the run together, an extra element makes their situation more suspenseful than a typical chase movie. In addition to improving his strength and stamina, the “chems” Cross has been taking also increase his intelligence. Without those pills, he will go back to being a barely functional bomb-surviving soldier who needed 12 points added to his IQ in order to meet the army’s minimum intelligence requirement.
Renner is excellent as Cross, whose physical prowess and quick mental reflexes are tempered by a barely controlled form of junkie desperation. Knowing what will happen to him if he doesn’t get some kind of fix makes his plight unusually poignant. Looks and demeanor-wise, Renner’s closest equivalent in the cinematic spy game is James Bond’s Daniel Craig, who shares a similar manly seriousness.
Weisz gives Shearing the right amount of nervous apprehension about finding herself in a high-firepower fugitive fantasy. In one of her best moments, her character is so unhinged during a shootout that she keeps pulling the trigger of a gun aimed at Cross even after she knows he is on her side.
Edward Norton is well cast as the ruthlessly amoral Col. Eric Byer, who is in charge of various black-ops agencies he is willing to sacrifice to keep them secret. “We will burn the program to the ground,” he announces with a finality that’s more coldly businesslike than bombastic. He later describes himself, Cross and their kind as “sin eaters” who “do the morally indefensible and the absolutely necessary.” That’s as good a summation as any of today’s security-state mentality.
The smart screenplay, co-written by regular Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy and his brother Dan Gilroy, is ingenious about addressing some of the real-world issues of a paranoid conspiracy flick. Dismissing the idea that Shearing might save herself by going public about the killers on her trail, Cross asks, “Could you ever say it loud enough or fast enough for them not to finish what they started?”
Tony Gilroy also is the film’s director, and manages to keep things as tense during high-tech surveillance scenes as in high-speed motorcycle chases.
Expanding on concepts from Robert Ludlum’s series of Bourne novels, the original plot and new characters introduced here are such worthy additions to the series that it’s hard not to hope Renner will return as Cross in a sequel. Bring back Damon for a team-up, and the “Bourne Again” result could be a dynamic-duo blockbuster.