"There was never just one." That advertising tag line for "The Bourne Legacy"has an almost apologetic ring to it, as if making a Bourne film without Matt Damon — the star of the first three and the epitome of the empathetic killing machine that is Jason Bourne — was a brash and risky move.
As it turns out, no one needed to worry, because few films have less to apologize for than this one. Complex, unexpected and dazzling, alternating relentless tension with resonant emotional moments, this is an exemplary espionage thriller that has a strong sense of what it wants to accomplish and how best to get there. And it is impeccably cast, from stars Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton on down.
Tony Gilroy, the man responsible for this accomplishment, is more than the director and co-writer of "Legacy." Though this is his first time behind the "Bourne" camera, he has written on all four pictures, and is in effect the keeper of the franchise flame. Gilroy knows the underpinnings of this world inside out and appreciates how essential it is to maintain and extend the house style of cool and credible intelligence that marked the previous films.
It was Gilroy, understanding that Damon was essentially irreplaceable, who shrewdly decided to go in a different direction entirely: "Legacy" expands the Bourne universe by positing that the secret U.S. government program that created Bourne's chemically enhanced super warrior went wider and deeper than anyone suspected.
"Legacy" (co-written with Gilroy's brother Dan) reveals that the Department of Defense had its own program, code name Outcome, with its own superior soldiers that paralleled the CIA Treadstone program that created Bourne.
At the close of"The Bourne Ultimatum,"Jason Bourne publicly exposes Treadstone. In "Legacy," we learn that Bourne's move prompts government officials to abruptly shut down Outcome as well, in order to limit possible exposure. But when these guys close down a program, a whole lot more sinister than just putting a sign on the door is involved.
This plotting may sound fairly straightforward, but because we're dealing with a Bourne film, the way it's presented is anything but. By thrusting us right in the middle of a fast-moving story, the Gilroys have made "Legacy" formidably hard to follow at first, filled with characters who show up without being introduced and talk as if the audience was as up to speed as they are.
Adding to this complexity is the fact that "Legacy" not only takes place in a multitude of international cities, it also simultaneously follows a trio of distinct plotlines — stories that initially stand alone before inevitably coming together. Having three superb actors capable of taking care of business in each of these threads is essential in keeping the audience involved until the narrative fog burns away.
First among equals is Renner, who plays Outcome agent Aaron Cross. The film opens with Cross at a snowy training site in the remote wilds of Alaska, maneuvering in frigid waters (the actor did the stunt himself), holding off a pack of wolves and in general proving himself to be as at home in the frozen north as Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.
Renner doesn't have Damon's everyman grace, but, as his Oscar nominations for"The Hurt Locker"and"The Town"demonstrate, he is a formidable actor who brings his particular brand of relentless intensity to the role of a remorseless killing machine. And he adds just enough humanity, especially in his worries about running out of the pills that keep him special, to keep us involved.
Also new to the Bourne cosmos (though the film tells us he's been there in the shadows all along) is retired Air Force Col. Eric Byer (Norton), director of the super-secret agency called NRAG that runs all these programs, and the man who made the decision to end Outcome.
As convincing and commanding as he's been in years, Norton outdoes himself as the implacable Byer, determined to burn the village to save it by terminating these agents with extreme prejudice. "We are the sin eaters," he says with terrifying conviction. "What we do is morally indefensible and absolutely necessary."
Coming off of the very different"The Deep Blue Sea,"Oscar winner Weisz ("The Constant Gardener") adds an essential and always welcome emotional element to the mix (and brings out the best in Renner in the process) as Dr. Marta Shearing, a biochemist employed by a branch of a major drug corporation.
Dr. Shearing's job is essentially to do pharmaceutical maintenance on the Outcome soldiers, whom she refers to only by number. Cross is no more than No. 5 to her, and though she barely knows him, circumstances too breathtaking to reveal bring them together and relentlessly up the ante in terms of nonstop jeopardy and jolting surprise twists.
"Legacy" features cameos from a handful of stars from the last film (Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn) as well as appearances by accomplished familiar faces like Zeljko Ivanek and Oscar Isaac. But as impressive is the range of top New York-based theatrical actors, including award winners like Donna Murphy, Michael Chernus and Dennis Boutsikaris, used to round out the government's team.
This is the third time directing for Gilroy, and though he was Oscar-nominated for his "Michael Clayton"debut, this "Bourne Legacy" collaboration with cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Kevin Thompson and editor John Gilroy (another brother) feels more confident and more cinematic than ever. The writer-director is easily as coolly efficient as the ruthless assassins he traffics in, and that is saying quite a lot.