For a completely unnecessary movie, Jason Bourne isn’t bad.
The problem is right there, though — there’s no good reason for Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass to return to the spy franchise that dominated action filmmaking in the 2000s, especially not for what amounts to a somewhat predictable greatest hits tour through the previous films' biggest moments.
There are occasional scenes where Jason Bourne film perks up. There’s even a new character, played by Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, who feels like a worthwhile addition to the Bourne mythos.
But the overall feeling is of one too many trips back to the well, only this time there are lots and lots and lots of scenes where people stare intently at computers while throbbing music plays — it’s Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing reimagined as an action film.
Here are two good things, two bad things, and one really weird thing about Jason Bourne.
Good: The film builds really well
Roughly the first hour of Jason Bourne is a bit listless. The title character is hiding out on the fringes of society, getting in shirtless fistfights for money, when an old friend pulls him back into the game. Apparently, there’s new information he needs to know about the CIA black ops program that created him and made his life a dark hell. (Bourne learned the truth about his past, which had been stripped from his memory by the program that made him a super spy, in 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum.)
But that first hour is also overwhelmingly taken up with scenes of characters dueling with each other at a distance — whether sitting at separate computer screens thousands of miles apart or just eyeing each other through sniper rifles.
The Bourne series has two great legacies, and one of them — we’ll get to the other in a bit — is the way its films tried to engage with the politics of their era, the way they allowed for lots of meaty complications that wrestled with the extragovernmental actions of George W. Bush’s national security state. And while Jason Bourne tries to do the same for, say, drone warfare, it struggles to make characters looking at computers all that interesting.
But Greengrass does something interesting as the film progresses: He slowly removes technology from the equation, until the final battle is two men pummeling each other with their fists. There’s some nonsense about a Las Vegas tech convention (and the secrets about the CIA that will be revealed there), but it seems to exist mostly to put Bourne and his target in the same city at the same time, so they can get into each other’s personal space.
The result is a sense of creeping paranoia, a gradual realization that none of Jason Bourne’s characters can be trusted. And the more that paranoia weaves its spell around you, the stronger the film becomes.
Bad: We’ve seen a lot of this stuff before
Any Bourne film is going to feature car chases and fistfights. It’s going to have scenes in which Bourne tracks down some piece of the puzzle that explains why he is the way he is. It’s going to have tense cat-and-mouse chases in crowded public areas.
But Jason Bourne fairly blatantly repeats big moments from the franchise’s earlier films, largely note for note, and it doesn’t even pause to comment on or acknowledge them. In particular, a shocking scene from very early in The Bourne Supremacy, the second film, is redone almost directly, but with far less emotional impact.
The original three Bourne films told a more or less complete story about one man’s quest for his identity, and how that quest took him on a guided tour of the political landscape he lived in. Jason Bourne never finds a good reason to tell a new story in this world, so it simply repeats some of the original trilogy’s best moments in hopes of eliciting an emotional contact high.
Good: Alicia Vikander brings a terrific new character to life
At times, it seems as if the Bourne franchise can only have one or two female characters alive at the same time.
So it is with Jason Bourne, where much of the screen time is dominated by a new character, a computer whiz named Heather Lee, who sometimes allies with Bourne and sometimes seeks to bring him down, depending on her goals at the moment. Fortunately, Heather is a terrific new figure in the Bourne universe, one who will hopefully carry over to future films.
This "spycraft makes strange bedfellows" aspect of Jason Bourne is a big part of why its second half holds together as well as it does, and it wouldn’t work at all if Alicia Vikander weren’t playing Heather as someone who occasionally appears to be ensuring that even she doesn’t know which cards she’s holding.
Vikander, a Swedish native, doesn’t even begin to bother with an American accent; it seems like she’s trying for British and ends up with "vaguely European." But that only enhances the general sense of mystery that surrounds her character. Heather is great at reading situations and adapting to them, which makes her a formidable opponent for Bourne.
Matt Damon could play Bourne in his sleep — and to some degree, this film so thoroughly strands him in nonsensical story points that he might as well be. But he sparks every time he shares the screen with Vikander. There’s a prickly tension to the pairing that gives the whole film a nicely knotty propulsion.
Bad: Basically everything else having to do with the villains is dumb
Yes, yes, the CIA wants to take out Bourne. We’ve seen that before.
And, yes, they employ other super spies to try to bring him down. And, yes, those super spies are largely unmemorable, compared with the government functionaries dealing death from afar while holed up in Washington bunkers.
But that repetition is excusable, all part of being a franchise film. No, the worst decision Jason Bourne makes is smothering all of this with a heaping helping of daddy issues. Bourne wasn’t just made a super spy, see. No, it turns out his father was involved in the creation of the Treadstone program that trained him and took his memory. And, of course, Bourne’s father is dead, so he has no real way to process these emotions.
The sins of the father being at the root of the son’s issues is a very old one in fiction, but it’s rarely done as lazily as it is here. The "Bourne’s dad was maybe evil?!" plot feels so perfunctory that it’s a surprise any of the actors can play it with a straight face.
Even worse is that the film has an effective story it could use to motivate Bourne — his clear questioning of whether the truly patriotic thing to do is remain a rogue CIA weapon. Couldn’t he do some good working for the government again? The film introduces that idea, then shrugs it off in favor of the dead dad stuff. It’s enervating.
Weird: Paul Greengrass’s quick cutting feels almost stale
The other great legacy of the Bourne films is how they shot action sequences. Nobody is as good at the movement sometimes called "chaos cinema" as Greengrass and his editor Christopher Rouse (who won an Oscar for Ultimatum). The two transform their action sequences from fairly standard ones into elaborate suggestions of action sequences. There are so many individual shots and cuts that the brain loses track of any individual moment and simply basks in the visual assault. And all the while, Greengrass and Rouse use very subtle cues to make sure you’re following the action.
Others have tried to duplicate this style of action filmmaking, but they’ve mostly failed. And it’s largely fallen out of vogue, so if nothing else, Jason Bourne should feel somewhat novel — or at least like a worthy throwback.
But although there are sequences in Jason Bourne where Greengrass’s usual technique pays off (as with that final fistfight), the quick cutting often feels like it’s trying way too hard. Rather than staying just oriented enough to let the viewers enjoy their disorientation, it’s trapped between really going all in and sticking to something slightly more conventional.
This is an extension of the film’s other problems with feeling like a rehash of the originals, really. Supremacy’s action sequences were a step up over the action sequences of The Bourne Identity, and then Ultimatum took Supremacy’s technique to new heights. But for as much as Jason Bourne casts about for something that will feel similarly new, it mostly feels tired.
Jason Bourne is a sometimes entertaining film, worth seeing, especially if you loved the originals. But it’s also a constant reminder that the original trilogy ended with its best film — and nobody likes the kid who keeps hanging around school years after he graduated.
Jason Bourne opens throughout the country Friday, July 29. Special preview screenings are available Thursday, July 28.