08/10/2012 08:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ReThink Review: The Bourne Legacy - A Spy Is(n't) Bourne

With all of the politics and acrobatics needed to get The Bourne Legacy to the screen, the chances of it being a good movie seem pretty slim. The Jason Bourne series was only designed to be a trilogy, and with tensions running high on the set of the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, it seemed like the series had run its course. With many considering Ultimatum to be the best of the trilogy, it looked like the tale of amnesiac spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) would be ending on a high note. But with Universal Pictures reluctant to send its cash cow out to pasture, another Bourne film was ordered, but the plan hit a major snag when the director of the second and third Bourne films (Paul Greengrass) and Damon declined to sign on. So the studio tried to figure out how to make a Bourne movie without Bourne, but could it feel like anything other than a cynical attempt to squeeze more dollars from a finished franchise? Watch my ReThink Review of The Bourne Legacy to find out! (transcript below).

The Bourne Ultimatum was going to be the end of the Jason Bourne series, but Universal didn't want to the death of its most lucrative cash cow and wanted to make another one. But Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two Bourne films, didn't want to do it, and Matt Damon, who plays Jason Bourne, didn't want to do it without Greengrass. So after debating whether to get a different actor to simply play Bourne, as the James Bond movies do, they decided to introduce a new character with a parallel story line who's involved in the same super-spy program that created Bourne, even though Bourne himself wouldn't appear in the movie. All this rightfully sounds like the recipe for a bullshit movie, but amazingly, The Bourne Legacy isn't, and I'll tell you why.

Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, who we learn is a participant in a more advanced incarnation of Bourne's super-spy program called Outcome that's run by the NSA. But as events from the last Bourne movie play out and it seems that the super-spy programs from the earlier films, Treadstone and Blackbriar, are about to become public knowledge, the decision is made by the guy overseeing the program, retired Air Force colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton), to destroy all evidence that Outcome ever existed, including killing off the six super-spies Outcome created, including Cross, as well as others who may know too much about it.

One of these people is Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who's also marked for death since she works for a company with close ties to Outcome, though she never had any knowledge of the program and its ultimate goals. With Cross' enhanced abilities at stake, she and Cross have to evade a government dragnet and travel to the Philippines or risk Cross becoming useless and the both of them becoming easy targets.

Now I might be unusual in that my favorite movie in the Bourne trilogy is the first one, which was directed by Doug Liman, and had Jason Bourne discovering his spying abilities while bringing a largely unwilling bystander, played by Franka Potente, along for the ride. Legacy follows a similar path with Marta, though it's great that she's actually instrumental in helping Cross instead of just being a damsel in distress or a liability. It also helps to have an actress as talented as Weisz, who apparently has Benjamin Button disease and is aging backwards, since she's never looked better.

And one of the biggest improvements is that, like Identity, Legacy has longer, smoother shots that lets you really see action play out, unlike the relentless crash zooms and handheld shaky-cam of Greengrass' chapters. And I'm saying it now: unless you're shooting a documentary, shaky-cam is done and we need to get rid of it, and the fact that Legacy is smoother with longer shots to watch action play out is one of my favorite things about it.

Renner puts in a strong performance and distinguishes himself from Bourne in that he knows his abilities from the start, and it's great to see Renner emerge as such an intensely physical actor, which Hollywood doesn't make many of these days. The whole supporting cast does a great job as well, particularly Norton as he guides his team through the manhunt, where he manages to make coordinating logistics a fascinating thing to watch.

With its similar feel to the Bourne Identity, Legacy doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel. But, ten years after the original, I'm glad to see this non-shaky return to form, even if the final chase and showdown do drag several minutes too long. And the producers deserve a lot of credit for making what could be seen as a cynical cash-in into a truly worthy and intriguing parallel story line that delivers on the action that Bourne fans expect. I'm definitely curious to see what happens to Cross next, and if the producers can get the stars to align, the idea of Cross and Bourne together in the same movie has the potential of being the Avengers of spy movies.

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