'The Bourne Legacy' is a fascinating but frustrating expansion of the franchise

Robert Ludlum’s franchise is ‘Bourne’ again with Jeremy Renner as lone assassin Aaron Cross, on the run in the wake of Jason Bourne’s activities in the original series. With Renner taking the baton, the Bourne universe is expanded, seasoned and polished.

“The Bourne Legacy" is at once fascinating and frustrating. It’s a sophisticated chase movie so tangled within its own web that finding the way out is part fun, but also nerve-wracking. It’s an intelligent joyride for two hours that is ultimately mired by a surprisingly abrupt and weak ending.

There’s no question: you must watch the previous three “Bourne” films before seeing “Legacy” or else you will find yourself in a convoluted world of utter confusion. This” Bourne,” stylistically a match to the originals, is the weakest of the franchise. But a weak “Bourne” film is still a pretty solid piece of entertainment. Writers Tony and Dan Gilroy keep the action and suspense to a brisk pace and the tangled twists and turns to a smart and enjoyable level.

This stand-alone story runs concurrent to the action of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which is a very cool device, especially if you are familiar with the other films. As Jason Bourne is bringing down operation Treadstone in New York City, we follow his repercussions as they affect Aaron Cross.

Ed Norton and Stacy Keach are the shady puppet masters to a series of covert operations and when Jason Bourne begins publicly outing the government’s wrong-doings, they initiate a cover-up which requires the assassinations of their team of assassins, including Cross. Cut off from any and all information, Cross hops the globe to evade his assassins while trying to uncover the truth. On his journey he comes to the aid of a genetic scientist (Rachel Weisz) who is also a target.

Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the previous Bourne films, takes over the helming duties from Paul Greengrass. Gilroy and his brother Dan also provided the script here.  The Gilroys throw so much information at the audience, from politics to covert CIA operations to arcane bits of trivia from the other films that it all feels like it is leading to some spectacular explosive ending which never comes.

The action set pieces are expectedly spectacular and Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) is a contemporary master at tightly layering scenes with suspense. A lengthy motorcycle chase at the film’s finale is one of the most intense, if not completely ludicrous, chase scenes in recent action films.

Renner and Rachel Weisz are an excellent team; far more interesting and exciting than the Damon and Julia Stiles version from the previous two films. Weisz counters Renner’s brutish killer’s instinct with a suave nerdiness. She is a class act and does an excellent job at blurring the line between a vulnerable victim and unexpected action star.

There will certainly be comparisons between Renner and Damon. Obviously they are very different characters but it is without question that Damon’s Jason Bourne is a more enjoyable character and arc to follow. Renner’s Aaron Cross has half the personality of Jason Bourne. Renner’s performance is given a pick-me-up only when he intervenes with Rachel Weisz’s Dr. Marta Shering.

Fans of the original series will enjoy seeing the cross-pollination of actors like Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney.

Though the weakest of the series, “The Bourne Legacy” is not a throw-away action film. It’s one of the best thrillers of the year and a sure bet on the future success of the “Bourne” franchise.