When Universal decided to forge ahead with the Bourne franchise after Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, decided to call it quits, they were most assuredly looking for a glorious changing of the guard—something akin to when Daniel Craig took over for Pierce Brosnan as 007.
Instead, what they got with The Bourne Legacy is something closer to the vibe when Roberto Benigni replaced Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther franchise.
OK, that's a little harsh. I'll scale it back a bit: Jeremy Renner taking over for Damon in this franchise feels like the underwhelming switcheroo that occurred when Andrew Garfield took over for Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Renner, like Garfield, is a good actor. But he doesn't command a movie like Damon can, no matter how good The Hurt Locker was. When you take over for someone like Matt Damon, you are going to draw comparisons, and Renner isn't nearly as good as Damon as the Bourne centerpiece.
The story for this one involves a parallel plot to the last Damon installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, when Damon was kicking ass in New York City. Renner plays Aaron Cross, another scientific experiment with amplified strength and intelligence thanks to magic drugs.
When the film opens, we see Cross, alone in the wilderness, climbing wintry mountains and shooting drones out of the sky due to his super-strength and super-eyesight. He's a man on some sort of mission, and he's running low on the miracle drugs that make him a super-strong smarty-pants. This concerns him.
Back in the world of computer screens, suits and sticks up asses, a group of military/government types, led by retired Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton, looking for another franchise after totally blowing it with The Incredible Hulk), are trying to wipe out the program that birthed the likes of Cross and Bourne. While Bourne wreaks havoc in Manhattan, and Cross evades wolves in the mountains, the government is trying to cover up the whole mess by killing the other superhumans and the doctors who created them.
The plot feels a bit desperate, taking what was a good initial premise and stretching it thin in order to keep the cash cow rolling. The glimpses offered of Damon's photo during news reports make us wish for the true presence of Damon. It's not generally a good idea to remind viewers of superior movies while they are watching yours. (See the latest Total Recall and its winks at the Paul Verhoeven original for another lesson in how to belittle your film.)
Writer-director Tony Gilroy, who wrote the three previous Bourne screenplays, puts together a couple of decent action sequences. The early scenes with Cross fighting drones are fairly suspenseful, as is a shootout in a renovated house. But for every good action sequence, there's a stinker, like the final chase scene involving motorcycles and another superhuman guy trying to chase down Cross. The whole sequence is a poorly edited mess that's actually hilarious in how bad it is. I was laughing when I shouldn't have been laughing.
Rachel Weisz co-stars as a whiny doctor who helped to make the superhuman agents and manages to escape the powers that be with Cross. She's involved in that final motorcycle chase, which features her hanging off of a cycle in one instance. It looks staged and fake. Weisz, sporting a bad American accent, is better than this.
Renner is capable of headlining a movie, as he proved with The Hurt Locker. But I think he's better in supporting roles, such as the baddie in The Town, The Avengers, etc. However, if you are going to give him an action franchise, make him one from scratch instead of making him a potential replacement for Damon or Tom Cruise.
Damon, who had been reluctant about doing another Bourne film, has recently said he would reconsider if there were a good script. Producer Frank Marshall has been crowing about the idea of Renner and Damon joining forces in a future installment. That sounds like a good idea to me. Give Damon his franchise back, and let Renner do one of the things he does best, which is supporting action megastars in the franchises they have already established.
Either that, or write a better movie for Renner than The Bourne Legacy. This feels like a subplot of the previous chapter that was left on the cutting-room floor, because it was pointless and stupid. Sometimes, a franchise needs to die gracefully.