It’s been nine years since we last saw Matt Damon in the role of Jason Bourne and Paul Greengrass directing him in 2007’s thrilling The Bourne Ultimatum. But with the poor reception afforded the 2012 “sidequel” The Bourne Legacy (starring Jeremy Renner as Cross, a more sci-fi version of Bourne), and Damon himself on a bit of a cold streak with some of his recent films, it was probably inevitable that he would once again don the role of the memory-strapped former CIA assassin. Greengrass is also back behind the camera for Jason Bourne, implying that the team could work the same magic again that made their previous Bourne outings such a hit.
Well, no such luck. As its generic title indicates, Jason Bourne is a clichéd, tired mash-up of devices and plot points from the three previous films that starred Damon (including 2002’s Doug Liman-directed The Bourne Identity and 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy), with thinner supporting characters than usual and a new wrinkle to the mythology that, if anything, dilutes the power of the original Jason Bourne characterization. I won’t reveal what that plot turn is, but as we’ve seen in other recent action or genre films, it makes the Bourne “universe,” such as it is, much smaller.
You can almost guess the plot details before I lay a few of them out: Bourne (real name David Webb) is drawn out of hiding by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) when the existence of yet another secret assassin program – this one called Iron Hand – is uncovered. Bourne’s quest leads him on a collision course with, once again, the darkest corners of the U.S. intelligence network, this time represented primarily by the particularly cynical and duplicitous Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and an assassin referred to as the Asset (Vincent Cassel) who never even gets a name because he’s such a stock character. And lest we forget, there’s a wunderkind CIA analyst (Alicia Vikander) who is determined to bring Bourne in but whose allegiances begin to waver.
The script by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse (Greengrass’ regular editor) seems especially lazy and sloppy. We get to know absolutely nothing about Jones, Vikander and Cassel beyond their jobs (Cassel has a rote revenge motivation affixed to him) and none of them get anything compelling to do; Vikander, so good in Ex Machina, seems especially unsure of herself here while Jones sleepwalks through his role. As for our hero, Damon has the purposeful stride and the fighting moves down perfectly and slips smoothly back into his largely non-verbal character, but he’s going through the paces too, and even the new memories/back story that surface doesn’t add to our investment in the character but only make him more conventional.
We spend much of the film between action sequences watching people either staring at computer screens or walking endlessly through corridors/tunnels/back streets/crowded plazas (There is so much walking in this movie that I believe I dropped three or four pounds just watching all that exercise). There is also a lot of repetitious dialogue – “you don’t know who you’re dealing with,” “this ends here/tonight” – that is formulaic almost to the point of parody. A subplot involving a social network guru named Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) seems aimed at keeping the series relevant to today’s world but never develops into much of anything beyond a device to eventually get all the major players in the same location.
As for the action, you’re either with Greengrass or against him at this point. The camera remains a little more stable during the dialogue scenes (save for some distracting zooms), but with the action Greengrass and Rouse make everything as fast, spatially incoherent and visually fragmented as ever. The film begins with a super-long, fiery chase through the streets of a riot-torn Athens and has almost nowhere new to go from there, ending with an over-the-top pursuit involving a car and a SWAT truck on the streets of Las Vegas that is so violent and destructive (and probably fatal to a lot of innocent drivers and civilians) that Vegas officials may need to call in the Metropolis emergency crews from Man of Steel to help with the aftermath.
So in a weird way, Jason Bourne is both bigger and smaller at the same time. Bigger in the way it bashes you over the head with its major action set pieces, and smaller in the way it does nothing to advance this character or his story in an organic or fresh manner. Jason Bourne is what happens when there are financial pressures to continue a franchise but no great new story to tell; like the Bond series it was once crowned as the modern, grittier heir apparent to, it’s already becoming old-hat and creaky. At least the underrated The Bourne Legacy did something a bit different. After this one, however, I’m calling next for The Bourne Moratorium.
Jason Bourne is in theaters this Friday, July 29.