When we last saw Matt Damon’s former CIA hitman Jason Bourne he was busy swimming down the East River at the end of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, a film that provided a satisfying conclusion to a much-admired action movie trilogy. Nearly a decade later – and following in the wake of the misfiring spin-off The Bourne Legacy – director Paul Greengrass and his star have reunited to give us more of the same, which is a welcome diversion among the crowded summer blockbuster season, even if it can’t really be described as wholly necessary. Y’see, in order to facilitate Bourne’s return to action, Greengrass and his co-writer (also editor) Christopher Rouse have concocted yet another story in which our hero suffers from flashbacks that push him to investigate his past, which of course sets in motion a city-hopping game of cat and mouse between the former agent and the CIA, who want him dead. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say.
Initially in Jason Bourne we find the troubled, titular muscleman living off the grid and making money as a bare-knuckle fighter in Greece (cue lingering shots of Damon’s torso). We also discover that former CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is hanging out with a group of hackers in Finland, determined to expose secrets relating to the various black ops programs that have driven the plot of the series so far. (These are all sitting on CIA servers in a folder conveniently titled ‘Black Ops’, just waiting for a former, disgruntled employee to find them before blowing the whistle. In real life I presume such folders are given titles such as ‘My Litte Pony Fan Fiction’ to throw potential cybercriminals off the scent.) Eventually Parsons finds Bourne – best not to consider the logic of that one – and their meeting subsequently alerts the CIA to the fact that their former agent is still alive, so once again lots of special (although not too special) agents are deployed to wipe him out. Over at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Tommy Lee Jones plots and scowls in front of a bank of monitors while Alicia Vikander plots without scowling, the pair taking the place of former bigwigs-at-loggerheads played by the likes Chris Cooper, Scott Glenn, Brian Cox and Joan Allen. Concurrent with the usual mix of car chases, docudrama-style handheld camera, quick cuts, fist fights and lighnting-fast thinking is a rather uninvolving sub-plot featuring Riz Ahmed’s Zuckerberg-alike, which is little more than an unnecessary attempt to remind the audience that the world has changed since the last outing.
There’s something vaguely cringeworthy nowadays about Bourne’s constant ability to remain one step ahead of the game, though in fairness Greengrass and previous director Doug Liman have spent lots of time establishing the character’s traits, and it would have been a bizarre move to deviate from the norm with this comeback. There’s also somethnig incredibly cringeworthy about the CIA’s ability to produce crystal clear image enhancements from blurry footage that has been captured on the hoof by agents using mini-telescopes, as well, but it’s the kind of technology that gets wheeled out from time to time and I guess I’m happy enough to give it a pass under the circumstances. Understandably some of the other tricks employed to move the story along also seem a little tired, such as the flashbacks and the CIA’s ability to see just about everything, everywhere (shudder), as well as their knack of having agents in place within seconds. Yet in truth this series still feels closer to reality than other similar and successful spy franchises, such as those featuring Ethan Hunt and James Bond, both of which require the audience to suspend so much disbelief their protagonists may as well be travelling from one location to the next on pink clockwork unicorns.
Despite all these grumbles, and despite the sameyness of it all, it’s easy enough just to go with the flow, and I found Jason Bourne to be quite an exhilerating, well-made action film as a result; one that manages to justify its own existence. (No surprise, really, given that I enjoyed the first three.) Granted we’re further into leave-your-brain-at-the-door territory than we’ve been before, but the two big set pieces in Athens and Las Vegas are gripping, fast-paced and full of admirable stunt work, and that’s exactly what I went to see the movie for…as opposed to a realistic discussion of privacy and social media in the current age. Damon slips back into his old role with little trouble, like he’s pulling on a favourite sweater, and Vincent Cassel has no problem getting to grips with this film’s one-dimensional big bad, as he’s mostly required to kill people without displaying any emotion whatsoever (and the requisite scene in which his character examines his stubble/cuts/bandages in a dirty safehouse mirror is well within his range, too). There’s nothing new here, but if you can stand Greengrass’s love for shakey-cam and disorienting quick cuts there’s still plenty of fun to be had.
Directed by: Paul Greengrass.
Written by: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse. Based on characters by Robert Ludlum.
Starring: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Riz Ahmed, Julia Stiles, Ato Essandoh.
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd.
Editing: Christopher Rouse.
Music: John Powell, David Buckley.
Running Time: 123.