The Bourne films have more than just overstayed their welcome and outlasted the Ludlum books — they've been Van Halenized, with an abrupt change of frontman and a resulting dip in personality. The only big-ass popcorn franchise of the past decade to have not been spawned on computers, the series up to now has survived via Matt Damon's beady gaze, making decisions about where the story goes, even as director Paul Greengrass' jittery action fuzz did its best to render the set pieces of the past two entries almost unwatchable. (Doug Liman's initial film, maybe because it eschews the safe harmlessness of CGI, still pulses with panic and still freezes the channel-surfing thumb in midclick.) Now, we have Jeremy Renner as another Treadstone mega man (there were nine, apparently), and though he is a likable enough pug-nosed action figure, the Damonlessness is sorely felt.
Renner is not stranded by himself — The Bourne Legacy is chock-a-block with busy character-actor casting, from Edward Norton's nasally fed bulldog to fleeting cameos by David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen. For the extra work of a Guardian journalist who's killed without a line of dialogue, they even bothered to get Paddy Considine. The film is as densely packed with officious people and global villages as Syriana and takes itself about as seriously. Mostly, though, Renner has on-the-run scientist helpmate Rachel Weisz, who is 41 going on 23 and brings a badly needed, full-throated payload of personal energy to her tagalong scenes, even though they're just that.
Given the film's relentless slam-blam effect, it's rather amazing that anybody gets to act at all. (James Newton Howard's score is abusive, with every mere establishing shot of Tokyo or Chicago getting a brontosaur's soundtrack stomp.) But acting does happen, mostly in two-sentence splats, just enough to kick the narrative one more foot down the highway on its way to the inevitable showdown. There's a lot of pensive screen-watching in dark surveillance rooms.
Tony Gilroy, on his fourth Bourne and now unleashed from Ludlum's paperbacks (the subsequent Eric Van Lustbader sequels, even the one titled The Bourne Legacy, were not consulted), overplots in the Christopher Nolan manner. But Gilroy was smart enough to make room for juicy dramatics: After the film's lengthy centerpiece begins with a hairy workplace-shooting ordeal that Weisz survives, she heads to her crumbling fixer-upper mansion in the woods, where she's visited by seemingly concerned feds. Antics ensue, but only after a hearty dose of old-school interpersonal tension. The story in general takes a while to hit gears, but its primary task is revealing the broader program from which Bourne arose and the pharmaceutical basis of its behavioral modifications. Renner's Aaron Cross, first met fighting off wolves in Alaska, is a pill-popping über-mensch who suddenly realizes, as per Norton's bureaucratic fiat, that the program is being shut down and its progeny eliminated one by one. He's motivated to survive the onslaught (at first, via drone) but also to score more über-dope; Weisz's lab geek agrees to help only after realizing she's being hunted too.
This presents a dynamic Damon might not have enjoyed: Without his meds, the quick-minded Cross would revert to his old learning-disabled self, like the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon. ("I've got a long way to fall," Cross says, grumbling.) You can't blame the lug, though the notion that a daily dose of "viral" beanies was all Damon's Bourne needed to be Bourne is disenchanting, to say the least. The exposition supporting this chemical backstory fills the eddies in the action flow in ways the Bourne movies never required before, and the techno-gibberish flies like confetti.
Bourne, we're told, is also still evading assassination somewhere, and perhaps Universal is hoping for a Damon/Greengrass reunion for number five, which we'll call The Bourne Redundancy for now. Renner might just be a placeholder. Working in the trenches so he can eventually make himself another Michael Clayton, Gilroy keeps things brisk and relatively smart, but he can't be surprised if we find the rooftop-'n'-motorcycle chase through Manila a little rote by now, however white-knuckly and free of Greengrass camera palsy. The late-in-the-game introduction of a supervillain — a Bourne 2.0 from a "beta program" flown in from Bangkok in white skinny jeans — feels like outright pandering. But hell, it's the fourth film, and that's what happens when Hollywood hyperextends a simple paradigm beyond even the patience of the last cast and crew. (Greengrass just "wasn't interested" in another Bourne, and without him, Damon bailed.) Are we expecting much more?