It looks like a Bourne and sounds like a Bourne – what you can see through Paul Greengrass’ shaky-cam and hear of Matt Damon’s strained mumbles, anyway – but Jason Bourne is a mere shadow of the entertaining original trilogy. After nine years away from the franchise, which also spawned curious offshoot The Bourne Legacy, the reteaming of director and star fails to recapture the magic in the story of our favorite amnesiac CIA assassin.
2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum felt like a natural conclusion and Jason Bourne tries way too hard to generate compelling personal drama without giving us a reason to care. Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse struggle to graft more tragedy onto Bourne’s backstory, developments that are necessitated more by the need to produce another blockbuster than a need to explore the character with more depth. The disorienting car chases, bone-crunching fisticuffs, and intelligence community conspiracy are all here; it’s just all so tedious this time around.
Off the grid since his disappearance, Jason Bourne (Damon) makes a living as a bareknuckle brawler in Southeastern Europe. His former colleague Nicky (Julia Stiles) wants to go all Snowden, stealing files in the hopes of exposing CIA black ops because “people have a right to know.” This includes Bourne, whose past traumas are included in the hacked data. When they rendezvous in Athens, the duo is being tracked by the agency, including obvious weasel Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and idealistic young agent and cyber expert Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). Lee thinks Bourne can be brought back into the fold as an asset, while Dewey is eager to use a covert agent known only as The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to take Bourne out.
A man trying to escape his fuzzy past by finally confronting it after extended sabbatical is a fine jumping off point for an espionage action movie – and fits the arc of the now older character and film series, but Jason Bourne has no desire to dig into that part of the story. The relevant crises are kept as barebones as possible, with flashbacks filling in the most basic of exposition.
It seems really strange that Bourne’s fractured memories only include information pertinent to this particular plotline. He’s not a haunted man struggling with his past; he’s a cipher. As is Cassel’s ruthless assassin. Both combatants are personifications of the problematic and bland “this time it’s personal” sequel trope. They have a climactic car chase down the Las Vegas Strip that is brilliantly shot and edited, though the stakes feel lower than Cassel’s pursuit of Damon through Vegas in the lighthearted Ocean’s Thirteen, despite the fact that dozens of innocent people must’ve been killed.
The CIA mistrust is also uninspired. Collusion between the agency and a young social media mogul (Riz Ahmed) to spy on people is a lame attempt to bring Big Brother into the Twitter age. The details don’t matter and we never learn how this revolutionary social media platform works.
A staple of the series, situation rooms with multiple screens and higher-ups barking orders at underlings banging away on keyboards also return. While Greengrass is able to add some intrigue with his kinetic camera, these sequences are ultra-convenient and clichéd at this point. Anyone can do anything with a few keystrokes, draining the drama from the chase. Also, status bars tracking the progress of a download have never been suspenseful, regardless of how loud and portentous the film score is. And does the CIA really store files in conveniently named and numbered folders titled “Black Operations?”
The chases and close-quarters action rouse excitement intermittently and Damon is still credible as a one-man wrecking crew. The combat never connects with the character, however, and as Bourne makes his way through a few European capitals before hitting Vegas the eluding of capture is episodic instead of suspense-building. His purpose is perfunctory.
When the familiar electronic screeches of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” hit in the final scene, they’re just as mechanical and obvious as the rest of Jason Bourne.