Jason Bourne often feels like what someone remembers a Bourne movie looking like, years after they had last seen one.
That’s understandable. After all, it’s been nine years since series star Matt Damon has appeared as the titular Jason Bourne, and 2012’s The Bourne Legacy was something of a departure from the series’ staple elements. But it’s hard to shake a feeling of something both overly familiar and strangely shallow watching Jason Bourne.
Set around a decade after the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, in which Damon’s Bourne helped reveal the CIA’s black operations programs to the public, Jason Bourne sees the semi-amnesiac sleeper agent serving a self-inflicted penance for his perceived crimes. Fighting in bare-knuckle street brawls, Bourne often allows his opponent to beat the holy hell out of him before eventually ending the fights with startling efficiency. Bourne is shaken out of his haze by former analyst Nicky Parsons (a returning Julia Stiles). Parsons has hacked the CIA with a partner and found information on a new CIA program called Black Hand, but she’s also found new information about Bourne’s recruitment and indoctrination with Treadstone. This information calls into question what he thinks he knows about himself and his past, and sets him on a collision course with a CIA that still wants to bring him in.
Of course, Parsons’ hack didn’t go unnoticed, and soon CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his cyber-espionage protégé Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) are on her trail, along with a nameless Treadstone asset (played by Vincent Cassel). But not everything is as it seems — obviously — and dueling agendas rapidly become apparent.
It all sounds more or less like a Bourne movie, and superficially, Jason Bourne hits all the list items. There’s a government conspiracy afoot. There are car chases. There are scenes allowing Bourne to look infinitely more prepared than the agents on his tail. There’s brutal fight scenes cut in quick shots that can often be as disorienting as they are exhilarating.
Jason Bourne seems fixated on demonstrating just how capable Damon still is, almost ten years after the last Bourne film, and in that regard, it’s successful. Damon’s physique is intimidating, his performance is colder but no less effective than it’s always been. It’s easy to miss some of the disarming flashes of humor and even innocence that the original Bourne Identity had, but that’s been gone for a long time, after all.
Damon is joined by a pair of co-leads that do a decent amount of work as foils for Bourne. Tommy Lee Jones is a scenery-chewing master class as Dewey, a role perfectly suited to the actor’s crotchety appearance. Jason Bourne isn’t a dialogue-heavy movie, and Jones’ face does a lot of heavy lifting very, very well. Meanwhile, Alicia Vikander’s turn as often difficult to read analyst Heather Lee is good, though she isn’t given nearly as much to work with as Jones. Cassel, meanwhile, is appropriately menacing, but his character is paper thin, and often an indicator of the film’s lazier tendencies.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Jason Bourne — the movie, I mean — just can’t be bothered. The leads hold the movie up much more than a generally weak script. Often, key plot points are dumped in some truly bad dialogue as walls of exposition. Julia Stiles is criminally underutilized, and most of Nicky’s lines are awkward, stilted bits of techno-babble and plot spackle.
Jason Bourne is often the least plausible of its compatriots in these moments. Technology in previous Bourne films was advanced but recognizable, and there was an effort to root its depictions of surveillance in believable practice. But there are moments of almost laugh-out-loud stupidity present that are distracting, like a supposed world-class hacker plugging a USB drive into an internet-connected laptop without a second thought, or a room full of journalists responding to a dotcom CEO’s assurances that his social platform will offer complete privacy from government agencies — which, obviously, it won’t, because it’s mentioned at all — responding with applause.
Any good ideas the script has, such as the CIA acting as a pseudo angel investor for startups to get into their networks early, are flushed away by the movie’s own disregard for a modicum of believability. Elsewhere, the plot is agonizingly predictable.
Director Paul Greengrass, who previously helmed The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, is back, and his fingerprints are everywhere. Jason Bourne is a well-shot, active, fun to watch movie. The dynamism of the Bourne series influenced plenty of action films that came after, and Greengrass doesn’t appear to have lost his eye. But there’s a real sense that this new film is more of a summer blockbuster than before, in a way that feels like just a little too much. Often, action scenes drag on just a bit too long, and there are so many artificially extended periods of tension that by the time the final chase unfolds, I felt a little exhausted.
That chase, by the way, feels excessive, gratuitous even, and indicative of a broader cynicism. Cassel’s "asset" murders civilians and other agents throughout with zero provocation, I guess because he’s supposed to be evil? There’s so much brutal murder happening that it becomes a bit numbing, until that final car chase, which gives Bad Boys 2 a run for its money for most horrifying, unnecessarily over the top action scene involving implied civilian casualties in a film.
It sounds like I didn’t like Jason Bourne, which isn’t fair. A Damon Bourne movie at its most middling is still often preferable to more manufactured, artificial studio fare this summer. Damon and Greengrass do a workmanlike job carrying the series onward. But the vitality of previous Bourne films hasn’t made as effective a leap.