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The Jason Bourne films have never been friendly to the CIA, painting America’s intelligence community as a deeply corrupted hotbed of scrupulously questionable, ends-justifies-the-means power brokers.

“The Bourne Legacy” continues the, well … legacy.

“We’re the sin eaters,” would-be agent Aaron Cross is told when he questions a CIA action. “We take moral excrement and bury it deep inside so that our cause can remain pure. It’s morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.”

That summary of the CIA’s mission is more than a little scary.

Then, true to the franchise (this is the fourth “Bourne” film), the lone operative Cross turns against the corrupt CIA to secure both his conscience and his liberty.

But whether the writers know it or not, the central conflict of “The Bourne Legacy” reveals one of the central conflicts in Western civilization today – namely, on what basis do we determine whether anything is ethical or not?

The pivotal moment comes when Cross (hmm, with the name “Aaron Cross,” could he be a messianic character, perhaps?) confronts one of the government scientists who has produced a viral drug that not only makes Cross a genetically enhanced soldier, but also a chemically dependent junkie. The doctor has been playing with the human genome without asking what the government was using it for, and the CIA has consequently twisted the science into a spy-and-slay program for intrigue and murder.

“Who tells you this is OK?” Cross challenges the scientist.

“I do research! … I don’t make policy!” the scientist objects. “I was there for the science. We were all there for the science. I thought I was there for my country!”

But is anything justifiable if it’s “for my country”? Or “for science”? How we do determine what’s ethical?

Profoundly, Cross asks exactly the right question: “Who tells you this is OK?”

For ethics requires a moral authority – the role traditionally played by God. No other system is sufficient for establishing what is ethical and moral.

Popular opinion is a lousy determiner of ethics. Wasn’t racial slavery once considered “moral” by the majority?

Moral relativity and what “feels right” is no better: “Well, I believe,” the pedophile says, “that sex with children is morally beautiful, and why are you pushing your morality down my throat?”

Even utilitarianism, sometimes summarized as doing the most good without doing harm, falls short as an ethical standard, for who has the wisdom and – there it is again – authority to determine what is “good” and what is “harm”?

Eventually, all determinations of morality and ethics really do come down to a simple question: “Who says?”

In other words, what’s your moral authority? Or as Aaron Cross puts it, “Who tells you this is OK?”

“The Bourne Legacy” may have been meant as nothing more than a summer action flick, or maybe it’s a shot at government corruption, but regardless of its intent, the film is a reflection of the quandary our society is in: If science or secularism succeed in slaying divine revelation as the source of morality, if they loose the only anchor of ethics Western civilization has known for centuries … the ship of society will be free to crash on an any number of reefs – and we’d better be afraid of the CIA. An entity that powerful that has no moral authority? Yikes.

As for the movie itself, alas, I recommend exploring its presentation of the moral dilemma only after it comes out on video, if then.

The first hour of the film is filled with so many frayed fragments of plot, so many unfollowable snippets of story that a couple behind me in the theater actually started snoring … and I was tempted to join them. It’s confusing, vague and the story never really comes together, even when the action picks up in the movie’s second half.

Most of the film, you’ll be asking, “What’s going on?” and, “Who are these people”? – and you’ll leave the theater with your questions unanswered.

The performances are solid, but Jeremy Renner as the new super agent just lacks the charisma of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, and the film’s constant teasing that Bourne will actually show up makes everything else on screen just a bit disappointing.

“A bit disappointing” – a good summary statement for “The Bourne Legacy” as a whole.

Content advisory:

  • “The Bourne Legacy,” rated PG-13, contains roughly 25 profanities and obscenities.
  • The film is remarkably light on sexuality, with no romantic relationships at all and the only significant skin is a bare-chested man in several scenes.
  • The movie, as should be expected, is heavy on violence (though perhaps not as heavy as previous “Bourne” films), including brutal hand-to-hand combat, shootings, a dozen or more killings and an extensive car chase scene. There is some gore, particularly when Cross performs a minor surgery on himself.
  • Save for the brief line about being “sin eaters,” described above, the film has no significant religious or occult themes.

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