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'Bourne Legacy' is capable, but ultimately uninspired

Universal Pictures

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in "The Bourne Legacy."

REVIEW: The "Bourne" legacy is furthered but not burnished by this fourth installment of the highly successful series that has heretofore been fronted by Matt Damon. With Jeremy Renner stepping in to play another covert operative and franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy taking over the directorial reins from Paul Greengrass, 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.

The box-office muscle of this final major name-brand attraction of the summer will be considerable but likely nowhere near the level of the most recent entry, 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum," which contributed $422 million of the $944 million the now decade-old Bourne series has generated in worldwide revenue.

Gilroy, who wrote this one with his brother Dan, knows his way around the inner workings of the series and the subterranean levels of secrecy and treachery that have made the late Robert Ludlum’s creation thrive onscreen for the past decade (this film bears no resemblance to the identically named 2004 novel authored by Eric Van Lustbader, who has written six more in the series).

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Having proved his directorial acumen with "Michael Clayton" and "Duplicity," Gilroy starts things off promisingly with a rugged prologue that introduces a new off-the-grid Operation Outcome field agent, Aaron Cross (Renner), completing a rigorous solo training mission in Alaska. Cross can climb, jump, shoot and anticipate as well as Bourne ever could and can manage at least two things his predecessor never did: defeat a wolf in hand-to-hand and take down a drone that his superior, CIA manager Eric Byer (Edward Norton), targets him with after learning that the entire program has been “infected” by the arrival in New York of Jason Bourne.

The first section of "The Bourne Legacy" thus overlaps with the climax of the last film, some footage of which is intercut with Cross’ remarkable survival of the drone attack and resourceful cover-up that makes Byer think the agent has died.

Thereby able to move around for a while without being tracked, Cross nonetheless needs critical meds only the government can provide, which links his fate to a genetic scientist, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who works with a few others in developing some extremely illicit drugs until a supposed deranged lunatic among them guns down all his co-workers except for Shearing, who manages to hide. But we should know by now that there’s a nasty ulterior motive behind almost every act of violence in a "Bourne" film, and it is no different this time.

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Cross too conveniently jumps into the good doctor’s life just as she’s engaged in a tense interview about the murders with superiors at her home, upon which they dash off as paired fugitives in the Hitchcock tradition, with the twist that the panicky government pursuers only think there’s of one of them.

Gilroy has worked out the intricacies of the plot mechanics with a density that is thick as it is clever, all of it once again designed to underline the utter mercilessness and amorality of the CIA and such fictional secret organizations as Treadstone and Operation Outcome; as the forever-agitated Byer states it, “We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” This cynicism always has been at the cold heart of the series, and the appeal was that Damon’s Bourne was always a match for it.

At first, in scenes in an Alaska cabin with a supposed contact (Oscar Isaac) that are laced with wariness, it seems that Gilroy and Renner mean to make Aaron Cross into a naturally chatty, inquisitive type, in contrast to Bourne’s taciturn seriousness. This intention shows itself for a while longer once he gets to the East Coast, but then it vanishes, leaving Renner with little to play other than a cookie-cutter tough guy and action hero able to save the day many times over.

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In his reputation-making roles in "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town," Renner displayed a volatile unpredictability that bore comparison to James Cagney. Since then, 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.

Cross, like Bourne, should be dangerous, and it’s not as if the character doesn’t get to take down a bunch of spooks and assassins anxious for a major notch in their belts. But Gilroy has cheated his leading man out of a good part by providing scant backstory, personality traits or motivation other than the most simplistic one of saving his own skin and that of his companion in rebellion against superiors who feel they need them erased.

For her part, Weisz has a few good scenes to play, especially upon surviving the lab massacre and when facing down her inquisitors. The bad guys, from Norton on down, are terse, self-serving and ruthless “just do it” types.

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At least as much as its predecessors, this is a globe-trotting affair, running from Alaska through Chicago, New York, D.C. and environs, Seoul, Karachi and, ultimately, Manila, a relatively unfamiliar location in big features that is the scene for a long motorcycle chase that, unfortunately, features mostly familiar moves. With Gilroy’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit behind the camera, the film looks first-rate, but the director backs down several notches from the radically amped-up approach to physicality established by Greengrass, to diminished returns.

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