Jason Bourne Fails to Engage with Today's Zeitgeist

Matt Damon is an intense Jason Bourne, but the world is too complex for his simple solutions.
Matt Damon is an intense Jason Bourne, but the world is too complex for his simple solutions. (c) Universal Pictures

Jason Bourne

Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse. Starring Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander and Julia Stiles. Opens Friday, July 29, at multiple theaters.

It's been nine years since we last saw Matt Damon racing around the world and beating people up as brainwashed assassin Jason Bourne — and the weight of those interim years rests heavily upon this fourth installment. Oh, it's not that Damon, now 46 years old, isn't up to the physical demands of the role. In fact, his Bourne is significantly beefier here: bigger, more intimidating, just plain more dangerous in an all-muscle kind of way. (Since we last saw him, Bourne appears to have been scraping out a meager living as a bare-knuckle boxer in underground fights, which perhaps necessitated getting pumped up.) Damon stalks around as if he is just barely restraining Bourne's power, and when he unleashes it, he owns the screen, simultaneously indulging Bourne's menace and suggesting that he hasn't yet let it fully uncoil.

Nor has returning director Paul Greengrass lost his mojo. (Greengrass did not direct the first film, 2002's The Bourne Identity, but did helm the second and third, 2004's The Bourne Supremacy and 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum.) He remains an absolute master of breathless nonstop action that, even as it embraces chaos, is never less than tightly controlled and supremely comprehensible. Whether it's an exhausting motorcycle getaway through streets overrun by rioters in Athens or a relentless demolition derby through ordinary traffic in Las Vegas, we are right in the middle of the mayhem, bombarded by thrills and terror while never losing track of what is actually happening. No one does this better than Greengrass.

No, the issue here is that the world has moved on from the initial confusion and upheaval — geopolitical, cultural, technological — of the years just after 9/11, and Jason Bourne can't keep up with how much darker and grimmer the world we've moved into is. The film tries, but those early 2000s Bourne flicks had an urgency to them even when they weren't directly addressing the global mess. When they were — as in Ultimatum, the best of a terrific bunch — it made for crackerjack-pop filmmaking.

Jason Bourne makes a few feints toward engaging with the spiraling disaster that is today's zeitgeist, but it doesn't do anything with them. It brings in a Julian Assange-style Internet whistleblower called Christian Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer) but then almost instantly dismisses him. It touches on the privacy concerns raised by total surveillance via tech wunderkind Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), but the movie cannot even decide what his "Deep Dream" project is about: First it's a "new platform," then it's something to do with "social networking." Greengrass, who wrote the script with Christopher Rouse, seems to think that it's enough that the CIA wants a back door to peek in on Deep Dream's users, but it's all little more than a vague wave of the hand at a hot topic. That's not enough.

Honestly, I just can't figure out why Bourne is back. His story was pretty much wrapped up after Ultimatum: He had regained his memory and was out of the professional-killer game. Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), grown from the clumsy CIA functionary of Identity into someone genuinely dangerous, shows up here to convince him there's more to learn — though her intriguing line "Remembering everything doesn't mean you know everything," so memorable from the trailer, doesn't actually appear in the movie — but what that turns out to be isn't particularly thrilling. It feels rather tacked on when it finally comes out in the end. The promise of Nicky's character isn't explored much either, and she exits quickly, leaving Bourne without a humanizing companion as he had in the first movie in Franka Potente's Marie, or even as Jeremy Renner's supersoldier had in Rachel Weisz in the 2012 spinoff The Bourne Legacy.

Everything looks great on paper here: Damon's brawny presence; the smartly staged action; the globehopping from Rome to Reykjavik, Berlin to London and beyond; the always-cool Tommy Lee Jones as the director of the CIA; Alicia Vikander as a smooth, slippery CIA analyst; Vincent Cassel as yet another professional killer. And it's not unfun. But it feels less black ops than old hat, like we've been here before. The fact is, we have ... and this visit ultimately disappears in a wisp of inconsequence.

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