Awkwardly woven into the plot of the previous trilogy, The Bourne Legacy does as it's supposed to: it cashes in on past successes, and delivers a good enough film to sell tickets.
Sometimes sequels can be great things. They can develop a character, expand a world, explore new ideas, deliver new thrills, and make a healthy profit for the movie industry - all built upon the foundation of an earlier film. The Bourne franchise has had its fair share of this; The Bourne Identity was a well paced, well executed spy thriller that broke a dry spell of good spy thrillers (just have a look at the Bond movies coming out then). The Bourne Supremacy took the idea further - introduced new well-integrated characters, better explored Jason Bourne's motivations, and dialled up the action to boot. The Bourne Ultimatum improved on everything in Supremacy, and tied things up nicely with a happy - and importantly, non-violent ending.
The Bourne Legacy takes that fantastic foundation, chucks it in the dumpster, and goes on to tell its own mediocre story that taints the beauty of the first three films.
The film opens with a shot from below, of Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, lying face down in the water - a call-back to movies past. But while Jason Bourne was shot, dying, and suffering amnesia, Cross is collecting some sort of red cylinder for some sort of training mission... It's not really clear. He's harder to relate to than Bourne; in the other movies we were learning about the world and the characters at the same time as him. Aaron Cross already knows more than us.
Maybe the problem is the talent shift? Previous director Paul Greengrass said it was time to move on, and following his departure, Matt Damon signed off as well, leaving the studio two gaping holes in their fourth Bourne film. Solution? Haul in the former screenwriter - Tony Gilroy - and have him direct. He knows the material. Then, cast a fresh face as the front man; the ubiquitous Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, The Avengers, Mission Impossible 4, The Town...). What could go wrong?
Ok, Gilroy and Renner are talented people, as are Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, and the whole production crew behind the picture. There are some great scenes - moments when Aaron Cross (Renner) is alone in the wilderness; an eerie sequence of agents being killed off; a frightening shootout in a lab, and some of the chase sequences, to name a few.
The action is not the best the Bourne franchise has given us, and for that this movie suffers a little. Not that the action is bad - the chase scene in Manilla is particularly well done, and it seems like they are still relying on a minimum of CGI to create these scenes, so they have a tangible feel to them which adds to the excitement. But Ultimatum was better; more visceral and immediate - especially the Tangiers bike/foot chase, culminating in an intense hand-to-hand struggle. Legacy doesn't quite reach those heights of spectacle, and it makes one wonder why the film must then exist at all.
CIA scenes have changed - probably designed to emphasize the difference between Eric Byer's (Norton) behind-the-scenes puppeteer-ing and Noah Vosen's approach. I didn't care for the change, although for the same reason that I imagine they made it; the scenes are a staple of Bourne... and a little repetitive. I liked them, they were a good contrast to the hands on action with Jason Bourne, painted an interesting portrait of corporate power and the structure of the agency, as well as becoming a familiar tool to gauge Bournes progress. There are still elements of them in the agency scenes of Legacy, but they aren't as formulaic, aren't as familiar. If you didn't like that aspect of the earlier Bourne films, perhaps this will suit you better.
The hierarchies of power within the agency are a little difficult to understand, particularly matters of who knows what, but if you just accept that Norton is above everybody he meets (even if he's not as well-dressed), then you should come off fine.
To discuss the things that that bothered me most, and really make this movie sit ill with the rest of the franchise, I will have to give away details of the ending. So:
SPOILERS FOLLOW, READ ON IF YOU HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE
The ending is quite sudden, and quite open. I mentioned that the previous film ended non-violently (that is, a solution was found that involved the exposure of the truth rather than the death of the villain), and I found that an interesting contrast to this film. After an intense, exciting motorbike chase, with a fairly spectacular ending, our heroes board a boat and sail off into the sunset, while the CIA track
One is the science fiction. I had always just assumed that Jason Bourne was an extremely well-trained soldier - there was a bit of appeal in the fact that we never knew exactly what was done to him to make him that way. Legacy introduces the idea that these assassins were formed with a good dose of magical-science-pill. This isn't a terrible idea in itself, but it does mean that the driving force of the plot (in place of Bourne's search for his identity) is Aaron Cross's search for the drugs. He's like an addict, eager for the next hit.
Following from that: he murders innocents because he's afraid to lose his superpowers. When Jason Bourne killed people it was out of character; he was a good man with lethal training, which he only used in the direst of circumstances, like when facing an equally lethal foe. Bourne preferred to incapacitate rather than kill, expressing remorse for the life he had previously lived, but Cross comes off as apathetic and a bit selfish. I suppose there are future movies in the works that can fix that.
The other disappointment is the treatment of Pamela Landy, and all of Jason Bourne's actions throughout the previous trilogy. At the end of this film, we hear Edward Norton reassuring the CIA dudes that Landy knows nothing - nothing of real importance. She will be painted in the press as a traitor to the country, and everything that was apparently accomplished leading up until now has come to nothing.
I suppose this is necessary in order for Aaron cross to have someone to run from in the upcoming sequels to this story. If they prove good perhaps it was worth compromising the integrity of the first set? Maybe there is hope for some more excellent Bourne films, so I suppose I am coming down a bit hard on this one. If Greengrass and Damon ever return to the series, a Cross/Bourne team up film could be extraordinary... or terrible.
The biggest problem with this film is that it all comes down to a desire for franchising. The first Bourne trilogy will stand the test of time, because all were legitimate films with a strong story, that holds up after their spectacle becomes dated. It's too early to say the same for this second trilogy, but if they don't change their approach from "continue Bourne" to "create something new" real soon, this will only end in one disappointment after another.