Like its titular character, Jason Bourne is trapped in the past. He can’t escape the neverending array of secrets from his days as an assassin and he can’t escape the gravity of his own tropes. Too many sequels become remakes of the previous film, down to iconic moments, and in that tradition, Bourne is mainlined fan service. It provides everything a Bourne fan could expect or want – shaky cam, crazy car chases, brutal household accessory-to-household accessory action, nameless characters prowling government control centers covered in screens etc. It isn’t exactly nostalgic but it does provide everything fans of the original trilogy did.
Above all, the fifth entry in the series (the fourth with Damon and his third with director Paul Greengrass, whom he refused to make the film without) feels perfunctory. It doesn’t move the ball forward but runs in place with it. Instead of innovative and fresh, competent and average are words that come to mind. But the best word to sum it up would be serviceable. Watching this film is a bit like watching an aging rock band tour past their prime. It’s the same musicians and the same music but time has worked its magic, changing them and the world their art lives in.
After discovering his true identity as David Webb, exposing the CIA program Treadstone that made him a conscienceless assassin and swimming to freedom, Bourne went off-the-grid, spending the decade since The Bourne Ultimatum bareknuckle fighting in Europe because, well, he’s a badass that’s why (plus, Damon didn’t get into that shape so he could not be shirtless multiple times in the first fifteen minutes).
Meanwhile, Bourne’s fellow rogue agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, the only actress to appear in all four Damon films) hacks the CIA for secret Treadstone files, drawing the attention of director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), his protege Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and a CIA assassin known only as The Asset (Vincent Cassel). The information, concerning Bourne’s father and his involvement in the program, compels Parsons to reconnect with Bourne and sets into motion the plot that takes the character from Athens, Greece during an austerity riot to Berlin to London and finally to Las Vegas, Nevada during a tech conference.
Jason Bourne occupies a strange space where it is neither as good as the previous films but it is better than a lot of similar spy actioners. There’s effort here but not enough. Greengrass is incapable of delivering an incompetent film; indeed, the editing is top-notch and the shaky cam more tolerable than in previous films. Nonetheless, there’s an air of mediocrity to the film, of repetition and retread. Making the driving plotline Bourne’s continued quest into his past also overrides the ending of Ultimatum, the catharsis of which is somewhat diminished by this film. Further muddying the water is the revelation of the involvement of Bourne’s father in the conspiracy, which never overcomes its cliched soap opera origins.
The series used to take seriously an idea that “history doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes.” Ultimatum made the narrative choice of co-existing within the same time period as The Bourne Supremacy, an intersection the Jeremy Renner-led spinoff The Bourne Legacy followed up on. In Jason Bourne, however, history flat-out repeats, especially in the first act and not in a good way. To say more would be a spoiler but these copied moments look and feel like shortcuts.
The Bourne series was never a paragon of plotting and narrative but this film is literally two big action sequences laced together by some connective tissue. In my estimation, it reflects the incredibly tight production schedule, which saw filming commence last September and end this March. Speaking of pacing, despite almost a decade between films, it exercises the tiresome trope wherein a character is in stasis in between sequels and the intermittent time is written off as “brooding” or whatever (other offenders include The Dark Knight Rises and the recent X-Men films).
The film gives scant time to the central conflict, concerning a social media platform named Deep Dream the CIA wants to exploit for their surveillance program and the privacy vs. security debate therein. The world events that supposedly spurred the return of Bourne, like the financial collapse and Edward Snowden leaks, are off-handedly referenced to provide a backdrop and context but little more. The politics are secondary and are treated as such. It’s frustrating and disappointing because when the film takes scant seconds to delve into their characters and themes, it comes alive, thanks to the caliber of performers and the interesting undercurrents the film ultimately just doesn’t have time for.
Despite a story that merely goes through the motions, neither Greengrass nor Damon sleepwalk and ruin their franchise. Damon and Vikander are both excellent at acting with their faces and this film showcases those skills to good effect. The recent Oscar-winner fits in seamlessly with the franchise’s cavalcade of shifty government types while also layering Heather Lee with doubt, ambition and idealism. When these she and Bourne, very much equals though on different playing fields, finally meet is when the film genuinely resonates. Jones and Cassel carve genuine villains out of the film’s wooden ambiguity. Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd and Riz Ahmed (fantastic in HBO’s currently-airing miniseries The Night Of, if you’re not watching) provide able assistance in relatively thankless roles.
Despite the film’s ambiguous ending and because studios like money, Universal stated its desire to make these films with Damon and Greengrass until President Drumpf initiates nuclear war (or something like that). The original trilogy innovated spy thrillers so much James Bond himself copied. But if it takes nine years to get them back in the saddles again (when Damon is 54) and they have no intention of recasting a la Bond, I hope a sixth film is more original material than greatest hits. And for the love of God, no more giant posters of Damon’s head.