It’s been four years since “The Bourne Legacy” and nine years since Matt Damon (“The Martian”) stepped into the role of the titular amnesiac CIA assassin. Director Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips”) returns to helm the series, reuniting with his longtime editor Christopher Rouse (who won an Oscar for “The Bourne Ultimatum”) to pen the screenplay. With all these pieces in place, it would seem that the Bourne series would be primed to return to the genre-defining, award-winning form it once held. However, “Jason Bourne” takes a few too many steps back and creates an entry that feels more like a retread than a return to relevance.
Greengrass still proves himself a competent hand in guiding the series’ action, being one of the few directors who knows how to effectively use a handheld camera, capturing the whirlwind pace of Bourne’s combat prowess, avoiding the downfalls of “shaky cam” and maintaining a consistency and comprehensibility that’s often lost in lesser hands. However, despite all of Greengrass’s technical strengths, I found myself struggling to buy into the suspense and stakes the film presented on screen.
Unfortunately, this arises from the generally derivative nature of the script, which often cuts from the Bourne cloth but does little to reinvigorate the formula. For some, this return to the status quo will be more than enough, but for a series that once found itself at the forefront of the form, it’s hard not feel disappointed by how formulaic and half-baked “Jason Bourne” feels. Perhaps the series should have also found a way to bring writer Doug Liman (who also directed “The Bourne Legacy”) back as well.
Picking up years after Jason Bourne exposed Operation Blackbriar, the film finds Bourne just getting by, taking part in the occasional bare-knuckle brawl to make a little cash. But when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, “Silver Linings Playbook”) reenters his life with information regarding Bourne’s father and his subsequent recruitment into Treadstone, Bourne is thrust back into a world of conspiracies and a life on the run, pursued by CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, “No Country For Old Men”) and his protégé, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”).
While the cast is full of top-notch talent, its talents are mostly wasted on characters that either feel like repeats of previous Bourne archetypes or underdeveloped plot points. Jones is the typical, old CIA villain previously played by the likes of Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. Meanwhile, we have the typical CIA assassin played by Vincent Cassel (“Black Swan”) that hunts Bourne with deadly efficiency. The presence of these figures isn’t detrimental; it’s their lack of differentiation that makes them struggle to become fully formed characters. They’re merely types and are never given the chance to define themselves in compelling ways. Cassell’s assassin has the inklings of a unique animosity towards Bourne, but it’s eventually jettisoned for something far less intriguing. The only new character that “Jason Bourne” is able to provide some adequate layers to is Vikander’s Lee, whose loyalties are shifting between idealism and ambition.
Meanwhile, the film admirably tries and mostly fails to place itself in today’s world. With references to Edward Snowden, a Julian Assange-esque figure and questions about privacy in a digital age, “Jason Bourne” attempts to be topical, but these ideas are never elevated beyond the passing mention or quick scene that provide little to no commentary on the issues the film wishes it could address.
These underdeveloped ideas extend to questions about Bourne’s psychology. There are some decent questions about Bourne’s purpose and whether he can be brought back into the CIA fold. But like most characters and themes in “Jason Bourne,” the exploration of these questions yields few compelling answers.
While “Jason Bourne” brings back some of the series’ biggest heavy-hitters it fails to utilize them in ways that breathe new life into the series, instead falling back on well worn tropes that are starting to lose traction. “Jason Bourne” may feel like a potential new beginning for the series, but it’s unable to distinguish itself from what came before.