In 2007, after three films and a decent-enough conclusion, the story of Jason Bourne seemed to have run its course, with Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass both electing to walk away from the Bourne franchise to pursue other interests. Universal attempted to soldier onward by tapping Jeremy Renner to star in a soft reboot called The Bourne Legacy in 2012, but a lukewarm critical reception killed the chances of Renner carrying the franchise any further.
Despite Damon’s own insistence that he and Greengrass had “ridden that horse as far as we can,” rumors began circulating that the proposed sequel to Renner’s first outing had been reworked as a vehicle for Damon to reprise his role as the highly-skilled super spy. After months of denials from producers and studio executives, word finally broke in November 2014 that Jason Bourne was coming back.
He shouldn’t have bothered.
Picking up nearly a decade after the events of The Bourne Supremacy, Universal’s Jason Bourne finds the titular former government assassin living in Greece, staying off the grid and keeping the bills paid by participating in a shady underground fighting ring. When his old Treadstone pal Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the CIA database and steals a list of black ops documents for a Julian Assange-like information trafficker, she discovers new information about Bourne’s past that may also be linked to the Agency’s latest covert program, Ironhand.
Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, at his prickly and cantankerous best) understands the threat Bourne represents, and immediately assigns another “asset” (Vincent Cassel) to eliminate Bourne, but counterinsurgency expert Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) opts for a different approach: why not try to recruit Bourne and bring him back into the fold? It’s an idea that sounds good on paper, but the files in Bourne’s possession may also reveal Dewey’s connection to young tech mogul Aaron Kaloor (Riz Ahmed), whose newest social media platform has been designed to allow the US government unfettered access to the lives of its users – not exactly the sort of thing you’d want the public to find out about.
Jason Bourne opens strongly, with a breathtaking first act chase sequence through the crowded streets of Athens in the middle of a political-demonstration-turned-riot, but it quickly finds itself hampered as Greengrass succumbs to the “least common denominator” school of filmmaking, dumbing everything down to the point of absurdity. The files Nicky steals from the CIA database are located in a folder labeled “Black Operations,” the USB drive she gives to Bourne has the word “encrypted” stamped on its surface, and the control room at Langley inexplicably has a direct camera feed from the scope of The Asset’s sniper rifle.
Ever dependable, Damon is solid if somewhat bland in the title role, which requires him to do very little but walk quickly through crowded locations and dole out the occasional ass-kicking. One of the highlights of previous Bourne films has always been the intricately-choregraphed fight sequences, but with our hero making short work of the various security guards and woefully inept agents, there’s really only a single extended combat scene. And even this feels lackluster – perhaps due to the fact that it comes on the heels of a cartoonish pursuit down the Vegas strip that left me questioning the viability of airbags as injury-prevention devices.
Meanwhile, Stiles turns in one of the most stilted performances of her career, reciting paragraphs of exposition-laced dialogue with as much enthusiasm as Ben Stein’s homeroom teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Luckily, she disappears from the proceedings before she has the opportunity to lull the audience to sleep, making way for the film’s only other significant female character: the crafty CIA analyst Heather Lee, who I might have been able to appreciate if Vikander had played the role with anything resembling emotion. And don’t even bother trying to determine what sort of accent she’s attempting, as it changes drastically from scene to scene.
The Bourne Identity is one of my favorite action thrillers of all time, and even though its sequels offered diminishing returns, Greengrass brought enough to the table to justify each subsequent installment – a feat that he falls well shorts of here. Jason Bourne is little more than a retread of the previous trilogy, with Damon putting together the pieces of his past while staying one step of the shadowy organization trying to bring him down, and eventually squaring off against a seemingly indestructible fellow agent before walking off into the sunset. For some fans, this will be enough, but after nearly a decade since The Bourne Ultimatum I was hoping for something smarter and more substantial.