Following "Identity," "Supremacy," and "Ultimatum," the latest picture in the highly successful Bourne franchise, "The Bourne Legacy," follows the established formula fairly closely, but also adds a good deal to the collection and even to its genre. Unlike most of the summer spectaculars, many adapted from comic books and aimed directly at a young audience, "The Bourne Legacy" resembles something like a motion picture for a more mature group, with a level of sophistication slightly higher than that of, say, the Spider-Man crowd.
To begin with, although the movie overflows with numerous action sequences of every imaginable kind, instead of employing the familiar straight-ahead, bang-bang plotting, it proceeds elliptically, so that for much of its length the action prevents complete understanding. Appropriately, the characters themselves seem as cryptic as the plot — and in fact, a couple of them openly confess their confusion about the events they find themselves involved in and the circumstances that surround them. Most blockbusters, after all, carefully avoid dabbling in mystery or constructing puzzles.
After beginning with its protagonist diving into a lake in the frozen wilderness of Alaska, the movie maneuvers rapidly and suddenly all over the globe, showing a number of apparently disconnected and generally enigmatic events. In the United States, it jumps from that location to an intelligence operation in Maryland, then to Washington, D.C., then to various places in Europe and Asia, finally reaching its violent climax in Manila. As the locations change and more and more characters enter the plot, the events and people gradually connect in some meaningful ways.
As the scenes change, a number of mysterious, violent incidents occur, which only after a considerable time come to make sense. Several people apparently linked to a secret American intelligence or counterespionage agency suddenly collapse and die in different cities all over the world; a drone aircraft — the new weapon of choice in blockbuster action flicks — fires a missile at a cabin in Alaska; a sniper assassinates a journalist in London; a scientist in a laboratory suddenly walks away from his work, pulls a pistol, and systematically murders his colleagues. The cause and significance of these strange events require explanations that, again, emerge in fragments, as if the world of the film actually existed without any continuity or meaning, but only as a series of discrete moments, brief, disordered perceptions in the mind of its protagonist.
The temporal context changes along with the countless movements from place to place, so that instead of something like a back story, explanatory hints emerge from conversations and memories of various characters. The unusual emphasis on obscure action and vague references and the technique of an almost continuous montage challenge the characters as much as the audience, so that the viewer only gradually comes to understand what is happening and why.
In keeping with both the previous films in the series and the title of Robert Ludlum's original novel, which started it all, one of the key themes in "The Bourne Legacy" involves the question of identity. Jeremy Renner plays the protagonist, who uses many names and, in flashbacks, demonstrates different personalities; in fact, along with the audience, he never really knows who he is, but finds meaning in his remarkable physical and mental resourcefulness.
A stellar cast also separates the movie from others of its kind, with Edward Norton as the chief villain of the piece, the director of a powerful and vicious government agency — as usual, organizations like the CIA behave quite badly in the film — and such accomplished actors as Albert Finney and Joan Allen appearing in surprisingly short moments. Stacy Keach, David Strathairn, and Scott Glenn play larger supporting parts, all of them almost as evil as Norton.
Beyond all the fascinating technique and the remarkable use of innumerable locations, the movie also employs the familiar stuff of its form. It displays an impressive mastery of contemporary technology, both as subject and method, explodes with all the necessary fireworks, features several gun battles, some really impressive stunts, and an extended climactic chase, on foot, in automobiles, and in motorcycles through the congested streets of Manila. In addition to its entertaining methods, "The Bourne Legacy" remains a blockbuster in the best sense of the term.