Yep, Jason Bourne is back. It only took nine years and one spin-off film so forgettable that you probably can’t even recall its title. When Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon wrapped up their trilogy of paranoid spy antics, they mentioned that Bourne might return if the time felt right.
The implication was that they had to wait for some sort of government surveillance scandal and related political turmoil to arise in the real world that could fit into their ongoing fictional narrative. That kind of happened with Snowden and so forth, and so they made a new Bourne flick. However, that doesn’t really feel like the real reason for this blockbuster’s existence. Nope, while that gentle political attack is baked into the premise, the truth is that these guys wanted to prove that Jason Bourne could still deliver blockbuster action better than the competition. When the flick hits its explosive high notes, it’s a delight to see this ass-kicking amnesiac back in action. Otherwise, the sequel feels a little stretched. Yet compared to the other popcorn thrill-rides released over the summer, this sucker holds up rather well.
So in the grand tradition of Rambo III (the one where Sly helps the Taliban…it was a different era. Bond did it too), Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, duh) pops up in an underground fighting circuit off the grid somewhere in Europe. That’s not exactly the most heroic place for the heroic hero to practice heroism, so soon he’s pulled out of that down note by Julia Stiles, who is now a hacker of some sort. She tells Bourne that there’s a piece of his history he doesn’t yet know and that the architect of that sad part of his lost life is Tommy Lee Jones, currently in charge of the CIA. Good ol’ Tommy starts tracking Bourne as soon as he reappears and puts a nameless assassin (the always fantastic Vincent Cassel) on Bourne’s trail. Jones is also involved in some dirty info-stealing deals with a social media guru (Riz Ahmed) and has to handle an ambitious young CIA officer (Alicia Vikander) on his team who might not trust his crusty old spy ways. That means that Bourne is back on the run, so tourist destination cities had better watch out, because he’s gonna cause a ruckus!
It’s all pretty simple sequel stuff, perhaps a little too simple. The charm of the original Bourne trilogy was its War On Terror era update of the ol’ 70s political thrillers that questioned any and all suited figures of power. Of course, while there were some politics in the mix, jittery suspense and metal-crunching action were the primary selling points: the braininess was always just clever window dressing. So, any and all contemporary political references in Jason Bourne are purely surface level, and most of the ideas were even beaten to the screen by Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So, it’s important not to expect much in the way of commentary beyond the superficial. Also, the attempt to give Bourne new memories to uncover is a little ridiculous and strained, with some soap opera level brain-pain acting from the usually unflappable Damon. This isn’t a perfect movie, nor is it nearly as tight as The Bourne Ultimatum, which was custom designed to send this series off in style.
Thankfully, neither Greengrass nor Damon seem to care all that much. The wobbly subtext and melodramatic plotting are merely required elements that they know they need to include to return to the Bourne universe. The director’s real goal is to bring back his gritty n’ grounded physical approach to action in a blockbuster season defined by pixels punching other pixels in the face. On that level, he succeeds handily. The first big set piece comes on the streets of Athens, with Bourne riding a motorcycle through an unspecified inequality riot. Motlov Cocktails litter his path along with crumbling buildings and angry masked protesters. It’s an amazing bit of action choreography and stunt performing, the sort of sequence that most action movies might not be able to top, leading them to fatally peak early. Thankfully Greengrass and co. definitely save the best for last with an absolutely insane n’ high octane car pile up in Vegas that tops the similarly amazing automotive mayhem that he staged in his previous Bourne sequels. It’s like a credible Fast & Furious sequence, which shouldn’t be possible, and it also just might be the finest action set piece of the summer, with Greengrass’ patented shaky cam naturalism and edit-fart intensity proving to be surprisingly subdued and easy to follow while making a visceral impact.
So those amazing bits of derring do are the real reason to see Jason Bourne, and they make it more than worth the entry price. In between, Greengrass and an overqualified cast provide enough elevated backroom bureaucratic spy suspense to keep viewers on edge between fisticuffs. The legendarily grumpy and cratered face of Tommy Lee Jones makes him an ideal foil from a dying spy world, while Alicia Vikander sets herself up as an intriguing new CIA foil for future features. Vincent Cassel’s natural screen charisma gives a thankless stooge role so much more presence than it deserves, which heightens the thrill of the big hunt sequences. Then Matt Damon grounds it all as best he can while also stepping up for any fight scene that requires his face. He’s always been a strong existential action figure lead for this series, and while his pained-memory faces are a bit much early on here, the guy still proves that he can go toe-to-toe with any action hero in this particular role.
For those who enjoyed Jason Bourne’s three-film identity chase in during the Bush era, this long delayed five-quel (Yep, The Bourne Legacy counts even though you only just remembered its existence and this movie is kind enough to ignore it) is a nice piece of recent nostalgia. Sure, the way Greengrass shot his earlier Bourne sequels made such an impact on the genre that the new movie doesn’t quite feel as fresh or carry out the political threads quite as well this time. However, when the action hits its stride, this flick takes off and delivers easily the best pure physical action sequences of the summer. It’s fun; it’s smart; it’s fast-paced; it’s well made. What more could you want from a movie called Jason Bourne made almost a decade too late? Have some fun with this one. You won’t regret it.