Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass reteam for the latest installment in the film series about a CIA assassin with extreme memory loss.
Up until a narratively implausible and logistically ridiculous climactic motorcycle chase through Las Vegas that feels like a sop to the Fast & Furious crowd, Jason Bourne is an engrossing reimmersion in the violent and mysterious world of Matt Damon’s shadowy secret op. With director Paul Greengrass compulsively cutting the almost incessant action to the absolute bone in his trademark fashion and some solid new characters stirred in, Universal’s franchise refresher should have no problem being re-embraced by longtime series fans nine years on (not counting the lukewarm non-Damon stopgap The Bourne Legacy in 2012).
Even though The Bourne Ultimatum theoretically resolved the root issues driving the title character’s distinctive identity crisis, Greengrass and his co-screenwriter (and film editor) Christopher Rouse now neatly reposition him as still in need of a little clarification and guidance in life. In fact, Bourne’s fortunes have now declined precipitously, as he’s first glimpsed in rough rural Greece engaging in bare-knuckle fighting for pocket money. He’s still tough but, as the traces of gray hair attest, he won’t survive too much longer on brawn alone.
As if anxious to serve up the first virtuoso action set-piece, Greengrass and Rouse quickly set the table back at Langley: New CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) has a keen young analyst, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), who has located Bourne’s long-ago contact Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) and rightly suspects that she has gone over to the other side in possession of a top secret file, the public revelation of which “could be worse than Snowden.”
For the better part of the next half-hour, the film bristles with visceral excitement. As Bourne and Parsons rendezvous in Athens, Dewey’s hired French assassin (cheekily named “Asset” and played with fierce menace by Vincent Cassel) pursues them through crowds of protestors that are moving through nocturnal streets, waving banners and, with gathering boldness, pushing matters closer to the edge of violence.
From a stylistic point of view, this long sequence represents Greengrass at his visceral, impressionistic best: The seething movement and sense of incipient chaos seem less like choreography than action painting, with one potent, elusive image replacing the last as in a jagged-edged, constantly shifting jigsaw puzzle. The result is much like what you might remember if you experienced such an unnerving event in real life; it captures indelible moments and images rather than a full and coherent picture of it.
The upshot is that the relentless Asset manages to accomplish just half of his job; it’s Bourne, of course, who gets away, with a file that supposedly reveals Black Ops secrets going way back, including the dirty secret about who killed Bourne’s father many years earlier. So everyone’s motives are firmly established: Heather wants to earn her stripes by being the one to finally bring Bourne in from the cold, Dewey needs to protect CIA secrets at all costs and Bourne, beyond surviving, is finally within reach of learning the truth once and for all.
But yet another intriguing new character has been added to the ensemble, that being Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, star of HBO’s The Night of), a young king of Silicon Valley who, up to now, has played ball with Dewey in exchange for the latter’s help in establishing his start-up. Now, however, Kalloor feels the need to assure his 1.5 billion users that his Deep Dream platform will not allow the government in under any circumstances, a move Dewey in no way appreciates.
Notwithstanding Dewey’s promise to allow the ambitious Heather one shot at lassoing Bourne, the relentless Asset continues to hunt his prey, now in London. A long pursuit sequence through the city’s gleaming new business district repeats many of the familiar moves, with characters darting quickly through crowds, from vulnerability to fleeting safety, with technology always in play and some resultant fatalities; it is, nonetheless, reliably tense.
The action’s final 40 minutes play out in Las Vegas, where the most anticipated event of a big tech convention is a Deep Dream symposium at which Kalloor and Dewey are to debate the contentious topic of web security vs. national security. With ace sharpshooter Asset on the loose, shadows of The Manchurian Candidate begin to loom over the big public event, especially as the CIA director has by now proven himself to be dependably duplicitous. To be sure, something happens to provoke widespread pandemonium and public panic, but the big action climax, a slam-bang speed race through a jam-packed nocturnal Vegas Strip, is as preposterous and incoherently staged as the Athens opening is striking and convincing. Not only that, but Asset’s reckless behavior seems totally out of character here in light of the instinct for self-preservation he’s heretofore always exhibited.
Unfortunately, then, the film ends on a flat, unimpressive note, as well as with the realization that, no matter how much time we’ve spent with them, the characters remain utterly one-dimensional. When in earlier series entries Bourne was emotionally bereft, obsessed about his father and determined to get to the bottom of things, there was always enough emotion to balance out the character’s machine-like efficiency and blank memory chips. Here, despite the welcome hints of vulnerability introduced by advancing age, Bourne seems rather more recessive and unavailable, an issue stemming from the script (which provides him with precious few lines) rather than from Damon, who is impressively opening up as an actor with the years.
Vikander is a very welcome addition to the series, her convincing intelligence and confident spirit lending credence to the idea that the CIA would engage someone so young for such an important position. But a moment or two of plain, simple humanity, a few lines or smart remarks unrelated to matters at hand, would have helped her breathe a whiff of real life into her character. In his few scenes, Ahmed makes a very strong impression as a young tycoon newly emboldened to hold his ground against overbearing government pressure. And it is good to see Stiles back, however briefly.
Technically and logistically, Greengrass delivers everything you expect from him; there’s no one better when it comes to staging complex, chaotic action amid the real life of big cities. As before, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is a great asset in this regard, and all production and effects hands join seamlessly in the achieved goal of physical verisimilitude.
Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzene Kiefer, Stephen Kunken
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriters: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum
Producers: Frank Marshall, Jeffrey M. Weiner, Ben Smith, Matt Damon, Paul Greengrass, Gregory Goodman
Executive producers: Henry Morrison, Christopher Rouse, Jennifer Todd, Doug Liman
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Art directors: Paul Kirby, Paul Inglis, Mark Scruton, Caty Maxey
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editor: Christopher Rouse
Music: John Powell, David Buckley
Visual effects supervisor: Charlie Noble
Casting: Francine Maisler, Dan Hubbard
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