Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is one of six agents in a program called Outcome. More than assassins, Outcome agents are designed for use in isolated, high-risk, long-term intelligence assignments. But it also holds a great danger: The Outcome agents have proven difficult to control, and Cross, once cut free, makes for an even more dangerous threat to his creators.       

Renner forms his own identity.

There’s a certain tradition of movie thriller that consciously, deliberately and carefully sets out to bamboozle the audience. This is the kind of picture where for large chunks of it you don’t know what the hell is going on; it’s a narrative style not exclusive to spy movies and espionage stories but I’m thinking of things like Marathon Man or more recently Syriana (which is not nearly as hard to follow as its reputation suggests). This is where the hero characters are introduced coldly, their human qualities submerged in their ability to deal death ruthlessly or dupe their enemies with Machiavellian cool. The action is delivered at a fast pace and often ferociously, its plot lines tangled beyond sense. Of course, part of the fun of this kind of picture is getting sucked into the confusing mayhem by virtue of its sheer visceral impact. That charge of energy gives you the trust to just go along with it, because if the filmmakers are skilful, all the mysteries of character, motivation and plot will be answered by the climax.

Renner’s Cross is a strong creation and a very different kind of character to Damon’s Bourne

Writer/director Tony Gilroy is an expert at this kind of thing. His Michael Clayton was a modified version of the style. He’s directed this new film, the fourth film in the Bourne franchise, using the 'confusing mystery plot’ technique but he’s amped up the strategy to an extreme. This movie is a maze that name checks a dossier of paranoid pop nightmares, from the no longer exotic terror of rogue government agencies and global spyware ability, to Wikileaks-type diplomatic snafus, to the relatively exotic possibilities – and sinister implications – of genetic engineering. But it makes sense. It’s quite clever, too. The plotting traps us, liked the heroes in a world of enemies. Still, cynics might argue that, in fact, The Bourne Legacy is, once you surgically remove the tricky structure, a simple pursuit-and-escape narrative. But then, the Bourne movies were never really about plot. Buried not too far underneath the spectacle was a load of very human guilt – and what guilt was to the previous instalments here becomes trust. It’s a far more delicate emotion to define and play with. But it gives the film an emotional quality, unlike the Damon films. It’s sadder in way, because the hero here needs a friend – and he’s the kind of friend no one needs.

Most of the advance word has dwelled on the fact that this is the first Bourne movie without Bourne. That makes the title a tad optimistic, or misleading, depending on how seriously you may want to take these things.

Legacy introduces us to a new spy hero who is played by The Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner. He plays Aaron Cross (that’s his spy name, of course), member of an elite team of operatives who we come to understand were the next generation after-Bourne, but as the movie opens, they, like Bourne’s squad, are now an embarrassment and their operation is to be shut down, mostly because its existence, and therefore its potency, has been exposed in the mainstream media. The action of Legacy takes place on the Bourne timeline where the last film began. We even see some of the same events, like the assassin of Guardian journo Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who wrote the incriminating article.

Part of what made Cross’ group special is that they are participating in a drug trial. These men take medication designed to alter their genes and deliver better performance, reduce their personality (translated: erode their conscience) and increase physical strength and tolerance for pain.

In charge of the elimination of Cross’ operation is chief spook Eric Byer, played with fierce jargon-loving viciousness by the reliably fine Ed Norton. Most of his scenes are set in high-end control rooms full of screens and populated by anonymous techno boffins who are expert at looking both grim and busy. Also on hand to compartmentalise any collateral damage to the CIA and other arms of government are a cast of hardboiled public servants played by Albert Finney, Scott Glenn and Stacey Keach.

As for Renner’s Cross, I think he’s a strong creation and a very different kind of character to Damon’s Bourne. For starters, Renner has a nice line in sardonic humour; he’s grimly determined but his vulnerability here is more physical, much less psychological. Unlike Bourne, who was suspicious of 'help’, Cross seeks it out and finds it in the form of Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who worked in the CIA’s secret spy drug trial. Cross needs his meds as without them he may die. Shearing may have the solution he needs.

Gilroy, who fans will know, was a key writer in the series from the beginning and here he co-writes with his brother, Dan. As director, he hasn’t messed with the aesthetic boilerplate established by Doug Liman and then finessed and tuned to a fever pitch by Paul Greengrass. Which is to say, it hurtles along with a highly mobile 'you are there’ camera style and strobe-like fast edits, a pounding score and a doco-like treatment of its exotic locations including Alaska, London and the Philippines.

The Bourne franchise is justly famous for its action set-pieces and its ability to cloak its frenzy in a mood of seriousness that feels neither glib nor cheap. Gilroy and co. maintains these assets for Legacy. And the action – foot chases, gun battles, and one lengthy episode on motorbikes in the choked streets of Manila – is really, really good.