When you're talking about a movie's relative quality, context is everything. How you choose to compare a given film to other movies can radically change your opinion about it. But no matter what angle you take on Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy, it comes up frustratingly short.
Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, an agent participating in a clandestine government program that's attempting to create chemically altered supersoldiers who possess maximum intelligence, pronounced physical strength, and the ability to withstand massive amounts of pain. When a British reporter threatens to expose this top-secret project, a military insider (Edward Norton) tries to shut the program down by killing all of the human guinea pigs in the experiment. However, Cross figures out what's going on, and with the help of a scientist (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz), he goes on the run to save himself.
Gilroy's movie works, but it's the weakest installment in the series. For example, in Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne had no idea what was going on -- he simply awoke with total amnesia, as well as the ability to outthink, outfight, and outrun everybody else. As he tried to discover his true self, the audience identified with his perpetual WTF face and wanted to emulate his ability to beat multiple people into submission. Aaron Cross (note the symbolism of the last names Bourne and Cross), on the other hand, knows exactly who and what he is from the start -- he's just trying to avoid being sacrificed because of the stupidity of the people in charge. Renner is rock solid in the part and he's as much a real person as a superhero, yet the story is set up in such a way that we're constantly aware that Aaron is nothing like us.
The Bourne Legacy also pales compared to Supremacy and Ultimatum. In those two sequels, director Paul Greengrass masterfully orchestrated action sequences that kept the viewer aware of where everybody was during extended chases and shoot-outs. Unfortunately, the lengthy chase scene that ends this film is a mess: It's all quick cuts and sound effects that drag on for so long you give up and wait for it to end -- which, to be fair, it does in a very memorable shot.
What Gilroy can do with mastery is build tension. There's a sequence involving a crazed gunman on a shooting spree that creates unbearable stress with classic edits and camera work. Gilroy also gives Renner plenty of moments in which the actor humanizes Aaron, especially in an early sequence when he stumbles through Alaska and comes across another member of the program. But the problem is that Gilroy doesn't do protracted action sequences or character beats as well as Greengrass or Liman.
If The Bourne Legacy were the starting point for a series, it would be easier to get more excited about it. And although it certainly figures out a novel way to continue the franchise while still acknowledging its rich past, it's that same towering history that keeps this latest entry from being anything more than a serviceable summer diversion.