We’re now four Matt Damon movies deep into the billion-dollar Bourne franchise (Damon does not appear in 2012’s Bourne Legacy), and in this one, lazily titled Jason Bourne, the amnesiac ex-assassin and CIA target has already regained his memory. With that major plot knot unraveled, what’s left to give another Bourne movie snap and resonance? Not all that much, apparently—but did you miss the bit about this being a billion dollar global franchise?
So this time, the script co-written by director Paul Greengrass with Christopher Rouse (Captain Phillips) finds Bourne living (again) way, way off the grid, supposedly trying to keep a low profile so that the CIA won’t find him and yet making a spectacle of himself as a brutal bare-knuckle fighter on the border of Albania and Greece.
When his old sort-of romantic interest and undercover bird-of-a-feather Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) tracks him down, we learn that she’s uncovered long-suppressed information about who killed Bourne’s father and other dark secrets about his past. She’s armed herself with a stolen USB drive and is hoping to get her old ally to join her in a Wikileaks-type exposé of the dirty “Treadstone” operation and its even more sinister successor: a 24-hour-surveillance system of every citizen on the planet.
Meanwhile, back in Langley, Virginia, the so-called “good guys”—the lizard-like director of the CIA (Tommy Lee Jones) and his canny protégée Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander, a major asset to the franchise)—track down Bourne and Parsons in Greece and dispatch their relentless secret weapon, known only as the Asset and played with shark-eyed ferocity by Vincent Cassel. Also figuring into the action is the Mark-Zuckerberg-meets-Steve-Jobs CEO of a social media conglomerate (the excellent Riz Ahmed from HBO's The Night Of) who deeply regrets his earlier alliance with the US government and intelligence community and wants to warn his followers of the dastardly plot they are about to unfold.
There are plot twists aplenty in Jason Bourne but there’s so little emotional involvement that you may find yourself losing the thread from scene to scene. The movie is mostly a series of astonishingly good chases and action sequences—a violent political riot in Greece, a race through Paddington Station in London—in which director Greengrass dials everything to an armrest-clutching 11. Those are big fun, of course, except for a ludicrous motorcycle chase and pile-up on the strip in Vegas.
But what takes the air out of Jason Bourne is its lack of the character detail and resonance of the earlier Bourne movies—the ones in which Damon got to play a haunted loner trying to understand who or what turned him into a killing machine. Damon, 45, is right on point and in phenomenal shape, and he’s mostly called on to play muscle, sinew and stony silence. But he’s even better in his tense but surprisingly tender reunion scenes with Stiles and, especially, the bewitching Vikander. The latter gives a masterclass in how to turn exposition and computer-speak into a complicated character we actually care about.
Jason Bourne delivers plenty of red meat, no question. Now if Damon and Greengrass can only bring back the heartbeat and complexity—two of the main reasons these movies were always cut above the same old, same old spy caper.