The Bourne Identity has managed to stick in my mind because it came first, and because like any good German I find the presence of my compatriots in Hollywood films inherently exciting and memorable. The Paul Greengrass-helmed Supremacy and Ultimatum have mostly flowed together, joining the Lethean mush of fuzzy franchise memories where Jason Voorhees murders and Rocky Balboa punches in a realm of abstraction at once ill-defined and Platonically pure.
So I can't weigh in on the controversy surrounding The Bourne Legacy: did writer-director Tony Gilroy retroactively ruin the first three films out of spite after falling out with Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass? What I can tell you is that once Gilroy is done ponderously explaining the series' plot, Legacy turns into breezy, brainless fun. This may be due to incompetence, to be sure; but either way it's a step in the right direction for a series that shed all artistic ambitions once studio necromancers decided they could milk the brand forever.
This time round we learn that with Jason Bourne still on the loose and Pamela Landy testifying before a congressional committee, Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) has decided to shut operations down for good lest the rot spread. That means, of course, eliminating all existing agents. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), training in the Alaskan wilderness, escapes a drone attack meant for him by sheer luck. Meanwhile, in Maryland Treadstone virologist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) survives a killing spree by a sleeper agent colleague. Once Cross rescues her from the mopping-up death squad, the two team up for a trip to Manila, where Cross hopes to find more of the special drugs that turned him into a super-soldier.
In structure, then, Legacy mirrors Identity: our hero flees from the guys trying to kill him with a tag-along woman, the challenge being to stay alive. But where Identity was about Jason Bourne finding out who he really was, Legacy offers no such startling revelations, let alone the drama of Bourne turning the tables on his former handlers in Supremacy and Ultimatum. Instead, we have low stakes: a bloke who really wants his super-serum, and Rachel Weisz following him around because she has no choice.
That wouldn't be such a problem if Legacy did not have a slow and overlong first act. Before anything happens, we must first say hello to a bunch of new characters and suffer long scenes of Renner walking through Alaskan forests, having pointless conversations with another operative (Oscar Isaac) and tussling with wolves in the vein of The Grey, less that film's pervasive nihilism. The Bourne Legacy's excessive 135 minute running time could be quite easily shortened by a good half-hour.
Once Legacy kicks into high gear, though, it's surprisingly good fun. The scene in which Renner and Weisz face off against four operatives at Dr. Shearing's house is a marvel of suspense mixed with hard-hitting action. The Manila scenes are not half so realistic, but they are ridiculously entertaining, particularly once Louis Ozawa Changchien's cartoonish villain is thrown into the mix. Weisz is always a welcome presence and does well in a thankless role, while Renner proves an acceptable substitute for Matt Damon. Palatable popcorn entertainment is several rungs below the glory days of the franchise, but considering the depths to which zombie franchises can sink we should be grateful for Legacy's general adequateness.