One moment of quiet solitude stands out amongst all the kinetic action sequences and globetrotting theatrics that have defined the Jason Bourne trilogy up to this point: a man’s lifeless body floats in the ocean, captured in low angle by a submerged camera and backlit by brilliant moonlight. It’s a shot that represents the fragility of this nimble and powerful character, who so often seems superhuman. “The Bourne Legacy,” the fourth installment in the series, begins with this very same pictorial, except the image feels frozen in time, even more somber and poetic. As if to linger on the franchise’s past before sending it in a new direction, director Tony Gilroy (who has had a hand in scripting each “Bourne”) references the seemingly lifeless body before revealing it to be very much alive, a shirtless swimmer in mid-stroke.
The man in question is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a lethal soldier turned chemistry experiment in the vein of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) on assignment in the Alaskan wilderness. If Cross’ specific tactical goals are unspoken during the early portions of “The Bourne Legacy,” it’s because Gilroy wants to frame his hero as a singular standalone character, surviving a primitive setting with an even more diabolical sense of right and wrong than the “civilized” world waiting for him. Fighting off wolves and climbing ice-capped mountains is just the beginning of Cross’ ascension to Bourne status.
For the first act of “The Bourne Legacy,” Gilroy crosscuts between Cross in Alaska and the growing political hoopla surrounding Bourne’s highly public retaliation against the Treadstone Project, captured at the tail end of 2008’s “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Bourne’s rogue actions have sent the C.I.A. and the N.S.A into a reactionary frenzy, outsourcing the brutally swift clean-up measures to secret groups like National Research Assay Group. Led by Retired Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton), this shady outfit sanctions the killing of everyone and everything associated with the experimental programs Bourne threatens to uncover.
Considering Byer and his government lackeys’ extreme reaction and Cross’ own disturbing dependency on the chemicals he has been force-fed by pharmaceutical scientists like Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), “The Bourne Legacy” can be seen as fascinating depiction of modern-day addiction. Every assassination attempt, chase sequence, and shootout stems from someone trying to desperately salvage control of technology, power, and the human body. It’s not surprising, then, that many of the film’s best action set-pieces take place inside laboratories or factories, the very places responsible for the experimental drugs that have made both Cross and Bourne liabilities.
While the action in “The Bourne Legacy” lives up to the high standards that its forbearers set, especially a brilliantly paced climactic motorcycle sequence through the crowded streets of Manila, Gilroy’s sequel is ripe with smaller character moments many might overlook. A tense conversation between Cross and a fellow agent inside a cabin not only expands the narrative scope beyond that of the lead character, it complicates both men’s emotional capabilities in a short amount of time. Another heated exchanged between Byer and one of his researchers puts into context the durability and seamlessness of the governmental corruption he represents.
Ultimately, “The Bourne Legacy” is a film about transition, both in terms of narrative and character. The film pulls off its role as an unabashed connector sequel even as it disavows the traditional three-act structure and becomes a fleet-footed and engaging critique of the power-hungry Bush-era vipers still striking at home and abroad.