Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy works enthusiastically against justifiably lowered expectations. For one thing, it’s the fourth film in the franchise and, let’s face it, when has that worked out? Jaws: The Revenge, Batman and Robin, Alien Resurrection, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Need we go on? And two, the film is missing Jason Bourne, since Matt Damon decided to take a pass this time out. So you have a Bourne film without a guy named “Bourne” in it. But the film has in its favor strong answers for both issues: director-screenwriter Tony Gilroy didn’t just write the first three installments, he also directed the stylish and smart Michael Clayton and Duplicity. There also happens to be a fearless and charismatic leading man to take the baton from Damon, in Jeremy Renner. If that isn’t enough to settle the “Is this franchise blockbuster worth my money?” jitters, you can throw in the versatile, beautiful Rachel Weisz for good measure.  

The film begins with Renner’s Aaron Cross—another one of the enhanced soldier-operatives from Jason Bourne’s graduating class, apparently—in full-on mountain man mode, navigating some harsh, remote and freezing Alaskan location. He follows a daily regimen of mountain-climbing, wolf-fighting, and ingesting blue and green pills, periodically taking his own blood for testing. While he’s busy making his way to secret check-in stations one day, the feds are freaking out because Jason Bourne is running circles around them in New York and threatening to reveal their shadowy, lethal, immoral, and illegal Treadstone program to the world. Hopefully, we’re making it clear enough that this is a bad program run by bad people. They’re very bad and they should be stopped.

Enter Edward Norton as a “cleaner” character deployed to shut down the entire program and tie up any loose ends before the various military and espionage departments and ultimately, the entire government itself gets “embarrassed” on a global scale. Shutting down a program in this case doesn’t entail firing people and boxing up files, it means killing people and theoretically burning all evidence that the program ever existed and never speaking its name again. And chasing those loose ends means… well, you probably get it by this point.

What follows are various scenes of Bourne and Cross’s fellow Treadstone operatives around the world being given deadly little yellow pills by their contacts and handlers, which they dutifully take, no questions asked, as if they’re wind-up soldiers that have just had their turnkey removed. At the same time, the primary medical testing facility monitoring the participants in the program also goes through some violent downsizing, with the only survivor being scientist/technician Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). Meanwhile, Cross answers the question we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another, which is, “If I were in an unforgiving Alaskan wilderness being chased and fired upon by an even less-forgiving drone armed with missiles targeting the tracking device surgically inserted in my waist, what would I do?” 

Not long after, Cross comes after Dr. Shearing and the two of them embark on a journey to Manila so she may go to the program’s chemical processing plant to inject Cross with the virus previously administered through those pills which literally make him run faster, jump higher, and think better than everyone else. He’s run out of his supply of super-powered sweet tarts and without them he’ll degrade faster than the guy in Flowers for Algernon. Meanwhile, the Norton character’s war room of eager-beaver hi-tech assistants scour global Big Brother surveillance footage for Cross and Shearing, and seemingly get every person on Earth on the phone to ask them if they’ve seen those two lately and if they know when they’ll be back.

The Bourne Legacy takes the series into a constantly shifting game in which Gilroy is trying to build a better and tougher and more efficient mouse as well as more and more preposterously difficult mouse traps. Watching any of the Bourne films, you get an adrenaline-fueled vicarious workout. You also wonder why our government can’t be this lethally brilliant in worldwide national-security ass-kicking, as well as have heightened fears that maybe they actually can do all that and we’re all sort of screwed. The potential problem is when that relentless formula becomes more exhausting and redundant as opposed to being electrifying and thrilling.

Jeremy Renner stepping in for Matt Damon is a fine choice because he’s enough of a star with presence but isn’t such a departure that the film feels like it’s moving stylistically in a completely different direction. Having Weisz on board is always an asset. As actors, they are similar, managing their star wattage well and keeping their performances well-grounded and real. Norton is solid, but the nature of the government/military baddie character who calls shots from afar neuters his villainy to an extent. Then again, the villain in the Bourne series is more the system than the individual, so that’s not a bug, that’s a feature.

Ultimately, The Bourne Legacy is like a good third member of a relay team, keeping the team in the race until the closer finishes with a flourish. And that closer would still be Damon. His image and spirit clings to this film like a ghost, giving you the idea that Universal would love to get him back on board, and maybe have Gilroy move toward a future Bourne film in which Damon could lead a team of chemically enhanced operatives, with Renner at his side.