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The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Action/Adventure Rated PG-13

There’s a make-or-break moment early on in The Bourne Legacy – I’ll only say it involves a showdown with a wolf – and the whole movie hinges, really, on whether we laugh in derision or in appreciation at the absurd audacity of the scene. In that moment and throughout its running time, Legacy had me laughing in a good way.

The challenge for any true action movie is how to display increasingly outrageous feats of derring-do without succumbing to self-parody. Like its Bourne predecessors, Legacy manages it by shunning CGI (at least to the naked eye), relying on top-tier actors and staging stunts that – while not being remotely realistic – have a crunch that nonetheless feels authentic.

The fourth film in the franchise, Legacy brings on a new director – series’ screenwriter Tony Gilroy, working from his own original story rather than a Robert Ludlum book – and a new star. Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, another medicinally enhanced Bourne-style operative who becomes a target when the shadowy types behind his program decide to pull the plug.

Without being remotely realistic … has a crunch that nonetheless feels authentic.

Renner is a physical match for previous star Matt Damon – both are stocky, schoolyard-fight types – but Renner brings a bit more lightness to the role. We meet him on a mountain-top training exercise, and when he finally makes it to the safety of a cabin where another agent is waiting, he’s jokey and friendly, as if they’re reunited friends meeting for a camping trip. (The other agent, played by Oscar Isaac, will have none of it.)

It’s a credit to Gilroy – who also directed Michael Clayton and the severely underappreciated Duplicity – that the conversations hold as much tension as the action sequences. Whether it’s Renner and Isaac feeling each other out in that cabin, as both begin to suspect the other of ulterior motives, or Edward Norton and fellow government spooks debating how to reign Cross in, some of the best scenes involve words that cause as much damage as bullets.

Legacy’s cast also includes Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing, one of the scientists behind the chemical concoctions that increase the physical abilities and brain power of Bourne and other agents. Also a target once the program is terminated, Shearing is rescued by Cross and the two team up to avoid elimination (he keeps her alive, she keeps him in meds). They share some intense debates about the morality of their respective professions, as well as Cross’ touching revelation that he was barely accepted into the Army because of a low IQ. For him, the Bourne program represents personal betterment.

For us, though, it mostly represents superior action filmmaking. Legacy includes a bravura trick shot that seemingly follows Cross out of a basement, up the side of a house and through a third-story window where he takes out an assassin. Later, there’s an endless (in a good way) motorcycle chase that ends on a cheeky note of feminine comeuppance. Indeed, I was so caught up in the latter sequence that I didn’t realize more than two hours had passed and the movie was coming to its conclusion. The Bourne Legacy moves so swiftly and purposefully, it’s as if the film is powered by jet propulsion.