Poor Jason Bourne—that guy just can’t catch a break. As an amnesiac super-spy, he's forever being shot at by people he doesn't know, for reasons he can't remember. Relentlessly hunted by every intelligence agency in the world, he must remain radically off-grid in places like Uzbekistan, Nepal, and Cleveland. When old friends get back in touch, they're invariably followed by entire platoons of elite assassins. It's hard not to isolate yourself in such circumstances. It's a drag getting old.
Bourne is back in theaters this week, and once again his misery is our delight. Simply titled Jason Bourne, the movie reunites Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who helmed Damon's last two Bourne movies. Though Bourne does look quite a bit older than he did when the series debuted fifteen years ago, there is no truth to the rumor that the new film was initially titled The Bourne Colonoscopy.
Look, these old man jokes come easy for a reason: The Bourne series is indeed showing its age, repeating itself in that way specific to established franchises. It ultimately plays out like a highlight reel from the other films, with the chase scenes, boss fights, and familiar story beats all landing precisely in their designated positions.
But that's OK, because nobody does this stuff better than Greengrass. Jason Bourne is a skillfully built Hollywood spy movie, as crafty and efficient at delivering thrills as its hero is at dispatching Eurotrash assassins. And Greengrass's extra-lean storytelling style is so singular it could be patented.
The setup is sturdy enough: Bourne is lured out of self-imposed exile by Nicky Parsons, his fellow rogue agent, played by Julia Stiles. Nicky has uncovered evidence that the U.S. is ramping up yet another black-ops project involving highly illegal methodologies—domestic surveillance, extrajudicial killings, the usual. Along the way, she picks up some information about a man who may be Bourne's father. That's enough to get Bourne back into the game.
The rest of the plot is disposable, really. It's just the chassis upon which Greengrass and Damon build their high-performance summer-movie vehicle. The opening scenes, set amid violent austerity demonstrations in Greece, serve notice that the series will continue to comment obliquely on contemporary issues. Class rage and populist uprisings give way to subplots concerning digital snooping, monstrous technology companies, and Wikileaks. When Nicky's data breach is revealed, one agency goon frets aloud: “This could be worse than Snowden.”
I've always liked that the Bourne movies are anchored in the real world and explore contemporary anxieties. That's a calling card for Greengrass—a former journalist—and part of the franchise's blueprint. But in the new movie, the sense of immediacy comes at a price. The story gets so mired in contemporary intrigues that it neglects the human element. As a character, Bourne has never been this machine-like before. I read somewhere that Damon has exactly twenty-five lines of dialogue, and I believe it. He has no real relationships with anyone—trust issues, I suppose. And Alicia Vikander, the new female lead, has ambiguous allegiances. Several times, I thought of the first movie’s tender moments between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente), which gave the characters dimensions and the story a kind of breathing room.
This movie doesn't breathe, or even blink. In a little more than two hours, it rockets through a dozen exotic locales, from Athens to Iceland to Las Vegas, with de rigueur stops at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It's a higher gear for a series that was pretty speedy to begin with, and Greengrass masterfully imparts visual information to keep the story moving fast. Those shaky-cam shots may seem chaotic, but rest assured that he’s led your eye to the precise thing he wants you to see—a specific face in a crowd, a particular word on a digital display.
Other new faces here include Vincent Cassel, in the rival agent role previously played by Clive Owen, Karl Urban, and several others. Tommy Lee Jones is the sinister authority figure previously played by Brian Cox, Albert Finney, and several others. The ingredients are different but the recipe stays the same. Not that there's anything wrong with that. After all, the Bond movies have been successfully repeating themselves for fifty years. The Bourne franchise has evolved into a similar state: This is less a series now than a genre.
As in previous Bourne movies, the government agencies are motivated primarily by the fear that Bourne will expose their black-ops programs and bring all their dirty dealings to light. This plot device has lost much of its punch in recent years. Consider the Snowden incident—if some rogue agent spilled CIA secrets into the headlines tomorrow, I suspect the bulk of the American public would shrug and go back to their Facebook updates and Pokémon hunts. Strange days, indeed.