There's a big difference between complex and confusing, but "The Bourne Legacy" confuses the latter for the former. Writer-director Tony Gilroy turns the original trilogy's intricate labyrinth of agencies, conspiracies and identity crises into a miasma of mythology-betraying mysteries built around an increasingly meaningless series of buzzword-fortified revelations. Nevertheless a well-intentioned if wholly desperate attempt to extend the life of Universal's successful series of "Bourne" films, "The Bourne Legacy" mostly succeeds at making so-called "adult" entertainment seem as dumb, pointless and needlessly complicated as the teen-oriented fare it purports to look down upon.
The plot of "Legacy" unfolds concurrent with the events of the first three "Bourne" films, whose own plot intricacies are too complicated to be described here -- although at least they make sense, and they aren’t repetitive. Here, Outcome operative Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) discovers that he has been targeted for assassination after his superiors decide to scrap the program, including not just field agents but anyone who contributed or worked on it. When Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) survives a seemingly inexplicable killing rampage at the medical facility where she once administered treatment to Outcome operatives, Cross tracks her down in order to obtain more of the medication he takes to maintain his heightened abilities.
Unfortunately, Shearing doesn’t have what he needs, and without it, his abilities will precipitously degenerate. But when she informs him that she can administer a virus that may permanently rid him of the need to take medication, the duo makes a dangerous journey to the Philippines, even as Cross’ superior Eric Byer (Edward Norton) dispatches a team to eliminate both of them at any cost.
So it's a familiar scenario. Lest audiences and especially critics forget, moviemaking is a business at least as much as it’s an art, and the studios have an understandable interest in keeping their coffers filled no matter how much acclaim their films receive come Oscar season. For example, although Universal competitor Warner Bros. has maintained some of the most consistent and fruitful director-studio relationships in film history, including longstanding partnerships with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood, it’s also the same distribution house scrambling to cement "Man of Steel" as its next great superhero series, and expanding "The Hobbit" from two films to three.
To relaunch a new iteration of "Bourne" isn’t just an idea ripe with artistic potential, especially with series writer Tony Gilroy at the helm; it’s literally good business. It’s also the sort of model that smaller production houses are using to build empires. Universal, Warner Bros. and Sony have all launched premiere direct-to-DVD labels which exist to produce the same kind of grindhouse fare that folks like Roger Corman and American International Pictures churned out in the 1960s and ‘70s. New Line’s "Undisputed III," the third installment in a series whose original is all but completely forgotten, received raves after it played at Actionfest in 2011. And Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren continue to breathe life into the "Universal Soldier" series, which flourishes on home video and quite frankly offers fans a great opportunity to see how much the two action stars have grown as actors.
But for audiences to accept this copy/imitation/knock-off of the thing they already poured their money into a few years prior, the filmmakers must maintain a delicate balance between novelty and homage. For example, although I like "The Matrix Reloaded" precisely because it offers a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo neatly wrapped in some totally freaking awesome action set pieces, there are others who think it’s too similar to the original "Matrix." And while I’m not a huge fan of the two sequels to "Infernal Affairs," it’s easy to admire the dexterity with which the filmmakers figure out a way to revisit a story with a clear beginning, middle and end and offer engaging adventure for characters and events whose outcomes we’ve already seen.
Unfortunately, the script for "The Bourne Legacy" feels less like a methodical relaunch or re-direction of the mythology of this hugely successful franchise than a series of ham-fisted excuses for why the main character is nothing like his predecessor.