‘Bourne Legacy’ can’t revive the franchise without Matt Damon

If you’re going to make a “Bourne” movie without Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner isn’t a bad second choice. He’s runty but determined, with some of the bantam confidence of Jimmy Cagney in his prime. And he gets things done, more so in his character of Aaron Cross, another on-the-run survivor of the CIA’s top secret superspy program, than as a newly minted star assigned the task of reviving a dormant movie franchise. The best thing that can be said about “The Bourne Legacy” is that Renner will survive it.

Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in writing the first three “Bourne” films, climbs into the director’s chair, working from a script co-written with his brother Dan that’s “inspired” by Robert Ludlum’s novels. “Legacy” starts off well, steadily intercutting between the agency spooks panicking as their secrets are threatened with exposure and Cross all the way up in Alaska, where he’s on a sort of Outward Bound course for Übermensches. The behavior modification of the Damon movies has branched out to viruses, genetics, and pharmaceuticals, with the hero popping “blues” and “greens” to keep his power levels up. Says one character of Cross, “If he doesn’t viral out, he’s gonna run out of brain.”

That’s about as cogent as the dialogue gets. It helps to have seen the earlier Bourne movies—maybe within the past week—so you can follow the hectic datelines (“Reston, VA 4:14 a.m.”), military crypto-speak (“Solo, fuel to Bingo is green”), and general alarm as head spook Col. Eric Beyer (Edward Norton) shuts down the project by having everyone killed. An early scene in which a colleague of lab scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) goes on a shooting rampage is deeply harrowing, but partly just due to recent headlines.

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Gilroy has a knack for modish, middleweight character study that served him well in his directorial debut, 2007’s “Michael Clayton,” but he has a way to go as an action director. “The Bourne Legacy” moves, all right, but with a jittery visual sense that comes increasingly unglued. Another early sequence in Shearing’s house, with her and Cross fighting off a team of heavily armed CIA “grief counselors,” is a tightly choreographed set-piece that pays off. Later, though, there are fight scenes in which it’s impossible to tell who’s hitting whom, and a climactic motorcycle chase through the packed streets of Manila that manages to be fast, noisy, overlong, and dull.

What’s missing from “Legacy” is any emotional stake. Damon’s Jason Bourne—who’s alluded to in the new film but seen only in a newscast—was a James Bond hero in the throes of an existential identity crisis, and the actor let you feel the character’s confusion and anger. As enjoyable as he is to watch, Renner’s underwritten Cross doesn’t carry the same weight. There’s a devilish comedy that you occasionally glimpse in the back of the star’s eyes, but he’s too much of a pro to let it out.

Weisz, by contrast, plays her role the way you or I would behave in a similar situation: Shearing is completely freaked out. A novel approach, but “The Bourne Legacy” isn’t sure what to do with it. It’s been a while, in fact, since I’ve seen a movie fall apart so completely in its final 20 minutes. A new-model government super-
assassin (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is abruptly introduced to chase down the heroes, and the film suddenly turns into “Terminator 2.” Norton’s character drops down the rabbit hole, Joan Allen and David Strathairn from the earlier movies suddenly reappear, and “The Bourne Legacy” folds its hand with a limp romantic fade-out and a cheesy pop song. Don’t expect the series to be back for a fifth movie, either. It ran out of brain.

[Editor’s note: This story has been expanded with online bonus content.]

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.