Here's an SAT question, if the SATs were written by stoned, summer blockbuster-crazed film majors: Is "The Bourne Legacy" less than, greater than or equal to the previous "Bourne" trio?

Or, to put it a different way, is Bourne substitute Jeremy Renner less than, greater than or equal to Matt Damon?

Since these questions are becoming more confusing than the films' convoluted back stories, let me simplify: "Legacy" doesn't quite equal "Supremacy" or "Ultimatum," but it's pretty darn close, and I'd call it on par with the original "Bourne Identity."

That conclusion makes Tony Gilroy's film, which at first seemed a risky proposition, a pleasant surprise and an enjoyable two-hours-plus.

It is important to note that Renner is not playing Jason Bourne. Thankfully, Universal decided against a Bond-style recasting, instead developing a character in the Bourne mold, part of the Bourne world and built for the same neck-breaking purposes.

When we last left the saga, Damon's Jason Bourne was swimming away to, we assume, a new life. When we meet fellow black-ops soldier Aaron Cross (Renner), he is still very much in the thick of things. In fact, the Bourne saga has not even ended there is overlap with the last film in the series, "Ultimatum."

But before too long, Cross comes under the gun. A gallery of brow-furrowed government big-shots led by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach want the Jason Bourne-type agents terminated, ASAP.

Cross escapes, but he is in dire need of the pills that have kept him ultra-powerful for so long. Rachel Weisz's Dr. Marta Sterling, dealing with her own chilling near-death experience, is the one person who can help Cross stay alive, and as she quickly discovers, he's the only one who can do the same for her.

It might not sound like it, but this is a simplified plot in many ways. And while the Cross back story is nowhere near as involving as Bourne's, let's not forget that was an origin tale built up over three films. If Renner's Cross lacks the emotional investment Damon's Bourne had, it's not entirely the fault of the actor or the filmmakers.

In fact, Weisz's Marta is the more compelling character, and happily, she is almost a co-lead. The always-strong Oscar winner, fresh off her finest performance yet in "The Deep Blue Sea," is the ideal audience conduit, and I found myself far more concerned with her safety than Cross's.

The duo's trek goes international, and it culminates in a motorcycle chase so absurd that James Cameron would call it "too much," but by that point, the film is so engrossing that the absurdity brings about a contented smile.

Gilroy, the co-writer of "Identity" and "Ultimatum" and solo scripter of "Supremacy," is not the action-artiste that "Bourne Supremacy" and "Ultimatum" director Paul Greengrass was. While many criticized the hand-held camera usage in those two films, I found it a kinetic way of heightening standard chase tropes. But Gilroy's directing is solid and tension-filled.

He is aided by a fine supporting cast of returning "Bourne" veterans, as well as rising star Oscar Isaac, the always-welcome Keach and a wonderfully vein-popping Norton.

For Renner, "Legacy" is another wise choice. Is he Damon's equal? Not yet. But, like the film, the actor and his character work, whether taken in the context of the series or not.

In fact, the less one remembers about the earlier installments, the better "Legacy" seems. Does it add much to the series as a whole? Not really. But as a rollicking August entertainment, it answers our SAT question with confidence -- and a kick to the head.



3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton

DIRECTOR: Tony Gilroy

RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for violence and action sequences.

THE LOWDOWN: A black-ops agent on the run is helped by a hunted scientist.