I was looking forward to "The Bourne Legacy" more than most studio sequels that have lost their signature director and star. That's because Universal turned to writer-director Tony Gilroy to reinvent the "Bourne" franchise without Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, who became a movie star playing the title character originated by Robert Ludlum.
That character was in many ways created by Gilroy, who wrote the first three movies--not always in sync with first director Doug Liman, who was a disorganized mess on the original, saved by producer Frank Marshall, or Greengrass. Gilroy figured out that you could extend the universe of Bourne and the rogue enhanced CIA agent storyline without Bourne. He could be in the story--referred to as an agent who went off his meds and still survived--without carrying the plot. Many characters from the "Bourne" universe return, if only glancingly, from David Straithairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney to Joan Allen.
So Universal and Gilroy, who had displayed his directing prowess in "Michael Clayton" and "Duplicity," turned to Jeremy Renner to carry on the franchise. Yes, Gilroy delivered a strong plot and supporting characters played by Edward Norton, Stacey Keach and most crucially, Rachel Weisz as a doctor on the run who needs Renner as much as he needs her. But it's Renner who makes you care about what's happening to him. You root for him to survive, even though on paper he could be easy to dislike.
The movie starts off establishing Number Five's cred as a super-agent alone in the mountains in frigid Alaska, emerging from an icy lake to retrieve a drop, warming himself up, taking his meds, which are running low, and leaping effortlessly from crag to crag over a precipitous mountain to his rendezvous point, staying ahead of a pack of wolves. Is it normal for wolves to follow someone like that? he asks a fellow agent (Oscar Isaac). "Maybe they don't think you're human," is the answer.
Number Five builds sympathy by asking questions he isn't supposed to ask, wise to the possibility that he could be killed off at any time. And it turns out he's right to be paranoid. The CIA is shutting down the program, and that means killing off agents and anyone else who knows too much. Also in the line of fire is Weisz, who--luckily for her--is also being pursued by Renner for her knowledge about the science of how to keep his mind and body going strong.
They make a compelling mismatched couple on the run (she's the audience surrogate)--and thankfully Gilroy doesn't let the chase sequences overwhelm the movie. So far Renner can do no wrong, from his Oscar-nominated roles in "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town" to smash "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," in which he held his own not only against Tom Cruise but wily Simon Pegg in the comic relief department, and his ensemble contribution as Hawkeye in "The Avengers."
While Gilroy is not as dazzling a shooter as Greengrass, he's a fine director with an eye for the details that ground a movie in some version of reality, which helps in a picture crammed with such jargon as "viral receptor mapping" and "genomic targeting." While "The Bourne Legacy" may not soar, it's as solid as the rock at its center: Renner.
Here are some more reviews:
THR: "The same tone and look are maintained, but the visceral excitement is muffled by familiarity, an insufficiently conceived lead character and the sheer weight of backstory and multiple layers of deception,..[Renner], with his far more manicured and better-tailored appearances in Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and now this, he has seemed straitjacketed and tamped down, as if having been advised not to come off as dangerous so as to be made fit for general consumption."
Variety: "Subbing character actor Jeremy Renner into a franchise that requires Matt Damon-caliber magnetism, series scribe Tony Gilroy takes over the helming duties with an overlong sequel that features too little action and an unnecessarily complicated plot. Fans will come, but they won't be happy, as if paying for a Bond movie and getting a 002 adventure in return,..Renner comes across as less immediately compelling than Damon, partly because it takes so long for the story to focus on Cross, and though the actor portrays a man in turmoil, the film fails to get inside his head,..If the filmmakers hope to carry on with Cross, they will have to rethink what auds expect from the character, offering more confrontation and less conspiracy."