When agent Aaron Cross plunges into icy waters in the opening moments of the brisk and satisfying spy thriller The Bourne Legacy, the scene serves two purposes: to commemorate the superb and well-loved trilogy that came before, in which Matt Damon, as the man called Jason Bourne, made his first appearance in The Bourne Identity, fished out of the Mediterranean Sea with bullets in his back; and to baptize Jeremy Renner as the action-hero heir worthy of leading the franchise forward.
The symbolism works elegantly. Renner’s Cross is a conflicted hero built to take advantage of the Hurt Locker star’s best qualities as an actor — his default intensity, the way he conveys that complicated mental calculations are taking place under cover of watchful stillness, even underwater. Director and co-writer Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has custom-tailored The Bourne Legacy for the present by opening up the narrative. Unnerving scenes of backroom operations among shadowy governmental and private-enterprise types reveal the machinations of a much bigger, more nefarious tangle of players than previously imagined. There are mystery men running the country — and, by remote control, the world. This movie recommends worrying.
Meanwhile, Cross is currently the agent in the crosshairs. To his handlers he’s only “No. 5,” one of six experimental warriors chemically enhanced for use by the Department of Defense in an operation called Outcome — sort of the 2.0 of the original trilogy’s Treadstone. But now his masters (led by an effectively steely Edward Norton) want to eradicate all evidence that Outcome ever existed by destroying these six superagents. In desperation, he turns for help to the pharmaceutical scientist who “created” his enhanced capabilities (Rachel Weisz, a good choice, and from the looks of her, a good runner). Soon the two are sprinting for their lives together.
Like any story with Bourne in the title, this one scampers around the globe, with a big chunk of well-crafted showdown action set in teeming Manila. Gilroy, who as a screenwriter has shaped the movie saga from the beginning, trades the wired rhythms established in the past two episodes by Paul Greengrass for something more realistic and closer to the ground. The change is refreshing. Jason Bourne’s legacy is in good hands. A-