It’s no exaggeration to say that the Bourne trilogy redefined modern action thrillers. Taking Bond to town with a weaponised ballpoint pen, it was a relevant, intelligent and furiously intense reinvention of the espionage genre. The less said about black sheep spin-off The Bourne Legacy (opens in new tab) the better, because Bourne’s back: Matt Damon here reunites with Supremacy (opens in new tab)/Ultimatum (opens in new tab) director Paul Greengrass to show action cinema’s Johnny-come-latelies how it’s done. But while Bond adapted and thrived under the new world order, for better or worse Jason Bourne is a film that’s stranded in the past.
When we’re reacquainted with the former super-assassin for the first time since 2007 he’s bare-knuckle boxing to eke out a living near the Greek/Albanian border. Believing “all that matters is you get off the grid, survive”, he’s forced back into action by former Treadstone field operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) after she hacks into the CIA with the intention of leaking dirty secrets. Part of Nicky’s discovery: a secret from Bourne’s past that puts him on a collision course with Tommy Lee Jones’ shady CIA director Robert Dewey, Alicia Vikander’s idealistic agent Heather Lee and Vincent Cassel’s lethal Asset.
Wasting little time before its first adrenalised action sequence – a motorbike chase through the streets of Athens amid a city-wide riot – there’s a tangible sense of relief that Greengrass hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to Bourne’s trailblazing action.
Zipping between burning cars as fireworks are launched like RPGs at riot shields, it’s a breath-snatching pursuit that proves that for all the times Greengrass’ ultra-intimate handheld camerawork and frenetic editing have been imitated, they’ve never been bettered. Few directors could craft such clarity out of absolute chaos.
Taking in detours to Berlin and London, the film’s action highlight is a Las Vegas destruction derby which boasts collateral damage that would make Zack Snyder wince, as a SWAT van twists metal on the Las Vegas strip. It’s a sequence that runs the risk of feeling too big for the series, but never shatters the carefully cultivated sense of heightened realism.
Peculiarly, bone-crunching close quarters combat is thin on the ground, with just one noteworthy encounter that lives in the shadow of superior scraps from the first three films. And while JB’s action won’t disappoint on a kinetic level, it never pushes the series forward. It may be bigger, but it isn’t smarter, the film lacking a single moment of memorable über-cool to rival the rolled-up magazine for thrilling quick-thinking.
The Bourne films have always been blockbusters with their fingers on the political pulse, and here Greengrass turns his attention over to online privacy post-Wikileaks. Not only does Bourne have to contend with a CIA surveillance upgrade, but the story orbits Riz Ahmed’s Aaron Kalloor – a web genius who makes a deal with the CIA to snoop on his users. The world has changed significantly since Bourne was last on the scene, yet for all the assertions that now was the right time to bring the $100m weapon out of hiding, it never feels vital to the story.
The personal mission he’s given here has the whiff of an awkward retcon, never feeling like an organic continuation of Bourne’s quest for an identity, particularly when a contrived revelation ties events of the past to the concerns of the present. Worse, Bourne’s vulnerability, the psychological trauma of his 32 CIA kills and 12 years in the cold are never addressed or used to move the character forward.
There are new CIA suits to contend with, of course, chief among them Tommy Lee Jones’ ruthless director. Jones is reliably curmudgeonly, but Dewey verges on cartoonishly evil. Vikander’s Heather Lee makes a more compelling foil. Ambitious and idealistic, she’s keen to bring Bourne in, but just as keen to progress up the career ladder. Cassel’s lone killer meanwhile is the most fleshed-out and remorseless Asset to date – the French firecracker doing a superb job of conveying murderous intent with little more than a menacing glare.
Annoyingly, it’s a film that also falls foul of blatant sequel baiting, teasing a list of Treadstone successor programmes and leaving characters hanging in a way that demands a follow up. Whether it warrants further entry is another question; any successor must stop delving into Bourne’s past and finally make good on his future.