Nine years ago, ‘The Bourne Identity’ trilogy wrapped up pretty succinctly and seemed like the sort of thing that should be left alone. Then came ‘The Bourne Legacy’, an unnecessary spinoff that qualified more as a franchise tainting than a proper extension. Now Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass have returned to right the ship.
The star and director always said that they’d be back if there was movie worth making. The uncreatively titled ‘Jason Bourne’ does have a little headline commentary jammed in between action sequences, which could theoretically be called the cause for the duo’s return. However, it’s more likely that they actually came back just to ensure that the franchise wrapped up with a decent movie rather than a cash-grab afterthought. Fair enough. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever claim this is the best film in the ‘Bourne’ series, but it just might have the best action scenes that Greengrass ever conceived. That’s not nothing.
We meet up with Bourne (Matt Damon, naturally) at a low point. He’s now doing bareknuckle boxing for cash somewhere in Europe, like Rambo with better hair and even less visible scarring despite all the fists to the face. Julia Stiles returns as Nicky, Bourne’s former inside contact in the government who’s now an off-the-grid hacker/troublemaker. She has discovered some new info about Bourne’s past and shares it with him in the midst of an unspecified riot in Athens. This draws the attention of the new super-surveillance and evil government team led by grizzled CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his quietly questioning assistant (Alicia Vikander). Dewey sends a nameless Euro-assassin (Vincent Cassel) after Bourne once he surfaces. As you can imagine, Bourne doesn’t take kindly to that. At that point, the game is on with the hidden superspy running around and uncovering secrets about his past, as well as Dewey’s shady government ties to a social media guru (Riz Ahmed from HBO’s ‘The Night Of’).
Obviously, the rationale behind reviving Bourne now was to tie his tale into the Snowden/’Pokémon Go’ era of voluntary government surveillance through mass cell phone addiction. That’s not a bad excuse, but don’t expect too much depth into that particular brand of digital paranoia. After all, while the ‘Bourne’ movies won points for including some level of political consciousness into their action thrills, it was always pretty surface level “War on Terror” observations weaved within grand old action spectacle. That’s true here too. It’s shallow, but fun.
That’s fine. At least Greengrass is more overtly politically aware in his film than, say, the folks behind the latest ‘Captain America’, which is the nearest contemporary equivalent. Where the fourquel struggles to keep the franchise running is in the revived memories of Bourne’s mysterious past. Since that plot wrapped up fairly succinctly in ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, Greengrass and his co-screenwriter/editor Christopher Rouse resort to some soap opera plotting about Bourne’s father with new memories opening in Bourne’s pained brain that feel a little stretched-out and ridiculous. Oh well, it could be far worse.
The reason the political subtext (well, text; it’s not exactly hidden) and back story are so simple is because Greengrass has always geared his movies toward action, suspense and spectacle first, and this flick packs some doozies. There’s a stunner in Athens when Bourne comes out of hiding, engaging in a motorcycle chase with a riot erupting around him (complete with crumbling buildings and endless Molotov cocktails). That’s wild, but merely a tease for a grand finale car chase in Vegas with cars flying around the neon strip in a more grounded display of ‘Fast and Furious’ automotive insanity. In a summer pretty much devoid of conventional physical action scenes, Greengrass delivers some truly remarkable spectacle, and his rapid-fire editing, handheld camera style feels more refined and clearly focused than before. He’s arguably topped the gritty action/suspense sequences that made his ‘Bourne’ movies so beloved. Above all else, that justifies the new movie’s existence. If you love action, getting pummeled by these scenes is a requirement for your summer movie season.
In between, the pop paranoia intrigue still works, even if it doesn’t quite have the same drive since Bourne’s past has long since been revealed. Much of that comes down to casting and Greengrass’ skill with actors. Tommy Lee Jones’ Western landscape face and pained scowls provide one of the better bureaucrat villains from this series, even if he has some of the weakest motivation. Vikander is a strong presence, set up for even stronger work in a sequel that may or may not arrive. Vincent Cassel provides a far more memorable villain than a personality-free stooge should possibly have thanks to his natural charisma. And of course, Matt Damon grounds it all as a perpetually pained hero in constant existential crisis. Everyone slots into the subdued and almost emotionless acting style that defined the franchise long ago. Even though they’re making pop, they treat it more seriously than most.
Is ‘Jason Bourne’ an absolutely necessary addition to a franchise that had to happen almost a decade after the initial trilogy concluded? No, not really. It feels more like a victory lap for Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, who wanted to both make up for ‘The Bourne Legacy’ and prove that they could still go toe-to-toe with the action filmmakers who’ve been topping their work for years. As popcorn entertainment, they deliver the goods. The look and feel of the series is retained well and the spectacle has never been bigger or better. Although the story is a bit strained and the whole thing feels a bit superfluous, that’s mostly because the series was so strong in its prime that standards are higher for a ‘Bourne’ flick than most summer action fare. Compared to the competition, this is damned good. It’s smart, it’s well crafted, it tries to say something, and then delivers one of the greatest cinematic car chases ever staged as icing on the cake.