Oh, you thought Jason Bourne was the only super-spy the CIA had created? That’s adorable. It’s adorable that you thought that! Of course the CIA had other test subjects too, all just as lethal with their hands, feet, and rolled-up magazines as Bourne. Now that Bourne himself is gone — which is to say, now that Matt Damon is finished with the franchise but the studio wants to keep going — it becomes necessary to deal with these heretofore unmentioned operatives.
Hence “The Bourne Legacy.” Its retroactive story-altering isn’t as cheesy as it might sound, though it is the first film in the series not based on one of Robert Ludlum’s novels. Ludlum’s successor, Eric Van Lustbader, wrote seven more Bourne books — including one called “The Bourne Legacy” — but the film has nothing to do with that. (Confusing, I know.) This slick but overlong new chapter is instead the brainchild of Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton,” “Duplicity”), who co-wrote the previous “Bourne” screenplays, wrote this one with his brother Dan Gilroy, and also directed it. He replaces Paul Greengrass in that capacity. He has brought a tripod with him.
“The Bourne Legacy” takes place at the same time as “The Bourne Ultimatum,” with the CIA and other government bodies scrambling to repair the damage done by that rascal Jason Bourne. It turns out that not only were there more super-spy test subjects besides him, but their enhanced mental and physical skills were the result of top-secret experimental drugs. With intel on the program starting to leak out, a Pentagon official named Col. Byer (Edward Norton) declares that the whole operation must be burned to the ground, figuratively for sure and literally if necessary.
Meanwhile, a grave-faced fellow named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is in the frozen Northern wilderness, heading for a rendezvous with a CIA contact while dutifully taking his pills at the prescribed intervals. Cross and everyone else in the movie calls them “chems,” I guess because that sounds cooler than “pills,” “drugs,” or even “meds.” These chems come from a government-contracted pharmaceutical company that employs many white-coated scientists, including Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who witnesses a chilling event that might be connected to Byer’s orders to shut everything down. She eventually finds herself on the run with Aaron Cross, both of them (but mostly him) pursued by their own government.
In other words, it’s the same scenario as in the other films, with Aaron Cross standing in for Bourne, Col. Byer serving as the new antagonist, and Marta Shearing filling the role of the super-spy’s female companion. The only significant difference is the chems. Gilroy doesn’t make it clear whether Jason Bourne was also taking them, or whether he was part of a different program. But the chems are crucial to Cross’ and the other test subjects’ well-being: if they stop taking them, there will be dire consequences. The film brings up a “Flowers for Algernon”-type possibility — maybe Cross will get dumber and weaker? — but then, disappointingly, doesn’t do anything with it.
The rather serious and businesslike film offers a handful of intense action scenes and some satisfying spy-vs-spy combat, Renner proving himself more than capable in every regard. He has the requisite steely, haunted look in his eye, much like the one he had in his breakout performance in “The Hurt Locker.” “You should have left me alone,” he tells an enemy at one point in “Bourne Legacy,” and you can tell he means it. Like his predecessor, Aaron Cross is not to be messed with.
But the film also lingers too much on the scientific side of things, explaining and re-explaining the chems and their effect on Cross and his compatriots. Chems, chems, chems. You will hear that non-word at least 45,000,000 times in this movie. Make no mistake, the concept of altering agents’ genetic code to make them more efficient is extremely cool. It’s constantly yammering on about it that slows things down. We’re not all that interested in why Cross is good at fighting, spying, and killing; we just want to see him do it.
B- (2 hrs., 15 min.; )