I've been a fan, mostly, of the Bourne film franchise since the first film. Tony Gilroy's recent fourth installment to the series, The Bourne Legacy, seems like a good excuse to revisit the whole franchise, which I've been doing in leisurely fashion.
But the new film.
Like everybody, I've been intrigued at the sheer cheek of making a Bourne film with… no trace of Jason Bourne in it! More than a handicap, the very concept is almost a non-sequitur. I don't honestly know why Matt Damon was not on board for this installment, though I read somewhere a quote from him saying he would not do any Bourne film that did not have Paul Greengrass at the helm. If that's true, I fear I must diverge a bit from Mr. Damon on what makes for a good film. Greengrass, you may recall, directed the second and third films of the franchise, and I was frankly thrilled to hear that he was not involved in The Bourne Legacy. Greengrass's Bourne films seem to worry excessively about looking hip and current, and the story suffers for it. I found both films much too unrelentingly noisy and chaotic, with action scenes shot entirely with hand-held cameras--and these given extra "wiggly-cam" emphasis--and edited in a fashion that will, in the near future, surely define the worst excesses of the present day (I have never seen either film without hearing comments, unbidden by me, that the fight scenes are almost unwatchable). Liman's film is easily the best of the series, and my revisit only strengthens this conviction. So kudos for Greengrass being out; but I was even more excited to learn that Tony Gilroy would be directing this time. His 2007 film Michael Clayton has been a recent favorite of mine.
Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, a government agent who apparently belongs, like Jason Bourne, to a mysterious small group of elite, go-anywhere hitmen. But they're more than just hitmen: they appear to be products of a mysterious secret program to develop special heightened skills. This is more or less hinted at in the previous Bourne films--the amnesiac Jason Bourne finds himself supremely equipped for killing without having any idea where his mad skills came from. He spends the next three films trying to figure out just what the program is / was and who is involved. In The Bourne Legacy, Aaron Cross is out on a training mission in remote Alaska when the program to which he belongs begins to fall apart. Like Jason Bourne before him, he must keep himself alive while trying to figure out why so many other people wish he were not so.
He is joined for much of the film by Rachel Weisz, who plays Marta Shearing, a genetic scientist who works on the project of which Bourne and Cross are subjects. When their program falls apart, she finds herself in the same hot water as Cross, and so they conveniently find each other and work together. And they've done a passable job of using the scientist to give a layman's explanation of how these agents were altered and for what purpose. (No doubt if I were knowledgeable about genetics I would howl at the stupidity--as I howl at how spectacularly wrong movies ALWAYS get aviation--but here they keep things vague enough that it's not a distraction.) Where there was an almost immediate romantic connection between Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) in the first film, any romance between Cross and Shearing takes its time happening and is mostly only hinted at. This is fine (though I have a thing for Rachel Weisz) as we have quite enough onscreen to keep us occupied.
The timeline of the current film is kind of sandwiched in between the other stories, so that Bourne's name is tossed about frequently, and his on-screen antics from the previous films are often occurring off camera while the present story is unfolding. In this way, he's kind of present in this film without ever appearing. It's odd, but it works.
And if I were Damon, I'd be a bit worried at how well the franchise works without him. Aaron Cross is effectively playing the exact same character as Jason Bourne: basically a decent fellow with a lethal skillset who keeps whole government agencies tied in knots while enthralling the unsuspecting woman he is unwittingly protecting. As I rewatch the older films, Matt Damon really comes off as the perfect Jason Bourne; but it's instructive to realize that it's maybe not the toughest role after all. I'd happily go see any future films with Jeremy Renner in the driver's seat, with or without Matt Damon's presence.