Matt Damon last played Jason Bourne in 2007, when The Bourne Ultimatum closed out a thrilling, cohesive action trilogy – and the character’s central drive – with the amnesiac rouge black ops agent learning the truth of his identity and exposing associated CIA misdeeds. Director Paul Greengrass said that he thought Bourne’s story was done, saying further sequels starring the character should be called “The Bourne Redundancy.” That’s why the fourth film was The Bourne Legacy, a terrific spinoff focused on a different agent who grows a conscience that puts him at odds with his agency handlers, which found writer-director Tony Gilroy deftly expanding the scope and possibilities for the future of the franchise. But now, somehow, the fifth time around has lured Greengrass and Damon back for more in the bluntly titled Jason Bourne. It’s a step backwards into the series’ comfort zone. Is there a good new story to tell about this character nearly a decade after we left him? Not particularly. But at least it has a decent grinding competency about it, a solid sense of shaky contemporary paranoia, and a couple great action shots.
Bourne, having spent the better part of ten years off the grid and on the run in the farthest overlooked corners of the world, is suddenly pulled back into the world of espionage and globetrotting skullduggery when an old ally (Julia Stiles) tracks him down. She’s uncovered yet another dirty secret about the CIA’s past involvement in his life. So off he goes, leaving his existence of lonely uncommunicativeness and earning money through backwater underground fighting, to once more look determinedly through binoculars, walk with grave purpose through patient multi-step traps and rendezvous, and slowly work his way into confrontation with the suits who conspire against him. Playing like an unnecessary epilogue to an already complete character arc, the new movie nonetheless operates from a baseline competency not unlike its protagonist’s. All superfluous movies should strive for such slick watchability. It’s restrained and methodical and, when all is said and done, accomplishes very little. But everyone involved is too much of a pro to let it be without some entertainment.
Greengrass, who also co-wrote with editor Christopher Rouse, has a handle on the mood of the piece, and is able to sustain mild interest in dependable scenes of great actors plotting and scheming and debating what to do while they glower at screens and bark into cell phones. He has Tommy Lee Jones as the agency’s director playing a sad-eyed cynic, a part that’d be described as a Tommy Lee Jones-like part if a lesser actor had been cast. He wants Bourne hunted down and to do so activates another in the series’ endless supply of covert killers (Vincent Cassel this time). Then there’s Alicia Vikander, the fresh-faced ingénue straight from a string of much better roles (like in Ex Machina, The Man from UNCLE, and an Oscar-winning turn in The Danish Girl). Here she's an ambitious young agent in normcore clothes who is determined to bring Bourne back into the fold instead of leaving him dead in the street. Elsewhere is Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, The Night Of, and other projects without the word “night” in the title) as a slick tech CEO whose Silicon Valley startup is entangled in the plot for reasons of token timeliness.
These actors, and Stiles (who doesn’t have enough to do, but that’s true of every movie for nearly 10 years now), go a long way to grounding the thin, insubstantial plot in something like weighty gravitas. They carry scenes of endless exposition by making it believable that these characters would speak to each other in terse jargon-filled exchanges of information. Damon, for his part, shows up after a rigorous workout all muscle, and keeps his head down, mostly silent with a few bursts of interrogation. He’s determination incarnate. Greengrass bookends the film in outbursts of violence and action, the first an escape through a riot in Greece that’s merely hectic, the finale a slam-bang car chase that includes a hijacked armored SWAT van plowing through a traffic jam in a most impressive display of stuntwork. It’s filmed, as you’d expect, in impressionistic smears of chaos cinema, a shaking camera and quick editing that are less precise here than the Bournes have previously been, but it gets the job done.
The least in the series, Jason Bourne is nonetheless a reasonably competent thriller coasting on affection for its predecessors. It’s a pleasure to be back in the recurring ideas and images of these films. The paranoid surveillance plotting can’t undo the comfort food elements of clever prop use in action beats, people snapping orders into headsets, hackers typing furiously, suits staring alternately intently or slack-jawed at screens and case files, Bourne talking on the phone to someone he’s watching through a scope, sudden blasts of gunfire, teeth-rattling car stunts, and Moby’s “Extreme Ways” playing us out into the end credits. The filmmakers’ bid to make the story matter either as a comment on our current world problems – “This could be worse than Snowden,” we hear twice – or to its characters lives – secrets even more closely intertwined with Bourne’s past – mostly falls flat. (That it repeats an inciting incident from The Bourne Supremacy is unfortunate, too.) And in the end the biggest surprise is how long it takes to have so little happen. But there’s that unstoppable competency driving everything along, elevating what could be totally disposable to the realm of passable diversion.