The fight sequences in the Bourne series are short on roundhouses, uppercuts, or anything like the wind-up from a Popeye cartoon—just fists or fury, quick and devastating, preceded by a minimum of talk. That was the core aesthetic of 2002’s The Bourne Identity, which answered a decade of bloated action movies with a fleet, efficient, no-frills thriller, built around a hero who’s an enigma even to himself. The second two entries, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, both directed by Paul Greengrass, added the docu-realist texture of his Bloody Sunday, while his star, Matt Damon, refined the latest in a career full of characters with slippery identities. With Greengrass and Damon gone, writer-director Tony Gilroy—who scripted all three entries and proved he was a more-than-capable director with Michael Clayton and Duplicity—takes the franchise back to square one with The Bourne Legacy, as if no one will remember the other three films existed. What was fresh a decade ago now seems like boilerplate.
Some of the mythology does remain. Gilroy ingeniously layers Bourne’s exposure of Operation Blackbriar with the CIA’s decision to shut down another secret black-ops program, Operation Outcome, by wiping out its field agents and any other disposables with knowledge of its human-engineering experiments. Jeremy Renner makes a capable Damon replacement as a super-agent who’s first seen scaling the mountains of Alaska before the powers-that-be, led by Edward Norton, order a hit on him and various unsuspecting operatives. After escaping a surprise attack, Renner hooks up with an Outcome scientist (Rachel Weisz) who also slips a death sentence, and the pair works together to expose the perpetrators while dodging bullets.
Working from Eric Van Lustbader’s book—fitting that Van Lustbader is also a fill-in, for original Bourne author Robert Ludlum—Gilroy does the unforgivable by turning out a lean thriller at a fatty 135 minutes, mainly by making the conspiracy plot far more complicated than it needs to be. Once Renner and Weisz finally join forces, The Bourne Legacy rebottles much of the chemistry that Damon and Franka Potente shared in the first film, like an us-against-the-world Stockholm syndrome. The action sequences are cleaner but less distinctive than those in the Greengrass Bournes, adding to the impression that Gilroy’s back-to-basics approach involves little more than mashing the reset button. As any Bourne character can testify, you can never go home again.