Review: “Jason Bourne”

Review: “Jason Bourne” July 29, 2016

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The most disappointing thing about “Jason Bourne” is the feeling that we’ve seen it all before.

In the early 2000s, the “Bourne” trilogy reinvigorated action cinema. After years of glossy, over-the-top action thrillers, Matt Damon and directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass melded post-9/11 unease with brutal, camera-shaking action to create one of that decade’s most memorable franchises. Based loosely on Robert Ludlum’s best-sellers, the films were vital, exciting and relevant, delivering escapist action through the filter of the day’s political fears.

“Jason Bourne” — the series’ first film since 2012’s Jeremy Renner-led “The Bourne Legacy” and the first starring Damon and directed by Greengrass since 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” — delivers a Bourne film through the filter of a Bourne film. All the series hallmarks are in place — close-quarter fights, car chases, double-crossing agents — but they’re only there because they’re the elements of a Bourne movie. What felt fresh even with the film’s third entry now feels  cliche, and the film risks turning into “The Bourne Self Parody.”

The movie finds Bourne making his way as an underground brawler in Greece, trying to stay out of the watchful eye of the CIA. He’s contacted by a friend from his past, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the former government analyst who helped Bourne discover his true identity. Nicky’s now a fugitive and a hacker, and she’s uncovered information regarding Bourne’s father, who may have been involved in the government program that trained him. After a rendezvous goes awry, Bourne finds himself at odds with the head of the CIA (Tommy Lee Jones) and his top technology agent (Alicia Vikander). There’s also a parallel plot involving a Google-like tech company CEO (Riz Ahmed) who’s working with the CIA on a hush-hush surveillance operation, but that storyline only exists to give the film the illusion of relevance; it has literally nothing to do with Bourne’s story except to provide a setting for the film’s Las Vegas climax.

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The original trilogy (we’ll forget “Legacy”) worked because it wrapped its political intrigue and action up in a compelling mystery. The question of Jason Bourne’s identity propelled those films and gave Damon the chance to create a memorable character. “Jason Bourne” struggles to say anything new or exciting about the character; giving him daddy issues feels like a weak play for emotional investment, and none of the film’s “revelations” are particularly interesting or surprising. Damon’s fine, but there’s little motivation or urgency to him, even as Bourne’s mystery centers on his father. The film gets into a routine where Bourne shows up in a city, tries to avoid being followed, gets in a fight and then gets information, and while Damon can throw a punch, he fails to bring any reason for us to care about seeing the character again.

The subplot about Internet privacy and government surveillance feels relevant on the surface in a post-Snowden age, but the film never finds anything to say about the subject. There’s a rich billionaire, the government wants to use his technology for illicit manners, and he doesn’t want them to. The plot is so simplistic and so disconnected from the film’s main thrust that what could have been interesting just sits there, weightless and pointless until the film needs a place to stage a car crash. Even when the plots come together, Bourne could care less about the internet threat; he just wants to get the CIA director.

The cast seems surprisingly disengaged. Damon could easily be playing any number of movie spies. Vikander’s character is interesting on paper, but the Oscar winner is surprisingly wooden and inert. Tommy Lee Jones plays a grumpy Tommy Lee Jones character. I like Ahmed’s energy, but his character is so inessential that it’s all for naught. Only Vincent Cassel, as an assassin with a grudge against Bourne, brings any menace or originality, and he’s used sparingly.

Greengrass still knows his way around an action sequence, and there are a few exciting moments scattered throughout. A chase during a riot in Greece is harrowing and well-staged, and the film’s car chase climax is suitably bone-crushing. The close-quarter fights are constant, although shaky cam haters will still wrestle with motion sickness, and there’s a brutal fight between Bourne and Cassel’s character at the film’s end. But Greengrass never feels particularly energized and there’s nothing as breathtaking as “Ultimatum’s” sniper chase. The action is fine, but never rises above that. Where the previous trilogy felt energetic and new, there’s a sense of “here’s that thing you like” permeating the entire movie. It’s competent, but too familiar. You’d be better off re-watching the originals; this movie just keeps trying to replay them anyway.

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