Jason Bourne is back! And, to be honest, I kind of wish he'd stayed away.
Looking back, it's easy to forget how The Bourne Identity flew under the radar when it first hit theaters in the middle of the summer fourteen years ago. Arriving in June of '02 after being delayed nearly a year, the Doug Liman-directed adaptation of Robert Ludlum's bestseller, starring Matt Damon as amnesiac spy Jason Bourne, didn't have a mountain of hype behind it, but it nonetheless managed to more than triple its budget at the global box office on the strength of good word of mouth.
It was a true, organic hit -- one whose audience only grew on home video, and whose impact can be seen in the stylistic path that both the James Bond and Batman franchises followed in its wake. Although Paul Greengrass took over for Liman with 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, the film did even better than its predecessor, and when the trilogy wrapped in 2007 with The Bourne Ultimatum, not only was it the biggest hit yet for the series, but the storyline involving secret CIA operations and global operatives had come to a reasonable conclusion.
While Damon had previously said he was done with the role, Universal never gave up hope that he'd re-up, going so far as making 2012's Jeremy Renner starrer The Bourne Legacy, a sideways spin-off that specifically left the door open for the star to return. And so here we are nine years on, and the actor has once more stepped into his signature role for Jason Bourne (lest there be any doubt which character this film is about). However, while his re-teaming with Greengrass should be cause for celebration, it just feels tired and played out in the way so many sequels have this summer.
As this installment begins, Jason Bourne, having learned his true identity and origins at the close of the previous entry -- (Ultimatum, that is. As far as this one is concerned, Legacy may as well not exist.) -- is living off the grid and making ends meet as a bare-knuckle brawler. Of course, this being a Bourne picture it's not long before various corrupt corners of the CIA rear their head (this time led by Tommy Lee Jones' Director Dewey), and Our Man is once again drawn into a global chase that may or may not involve squaring off against another spy of equal skill (spoiler: it does).
With previous writer Gilroy (who wrote all four previous films and directed Legacy) absent, there's a weird "mad libs" feeling to Jason Bourne, as if screenwriters Greengrass and Christopher Rouse were less concerned with constructing an effective continuation of the storyline as they were with crossing beats off a checklist. As such, it's hard to feel much of anything for the primary subplot involving the CIA's collaborating with the designer of a new social media app meant to allow for a greater degree data-mining by the government (shades of last year's Terminator Genisys).
Even with franchise newbies like Jones (looking more disinterested than usual), Riz Ahmed, and Alicia Vikander adding some variety to the cast, it all still feels like a reheated TV dinner. Meanwhile, Damon comes off like a guest star in his own movie, with little in the way of dialogue, and still playing the same action beats from prior installments. By the way, I've long been a defender of Greengrass' trademark shaky-cam style of capturing action sequences, which rely more on the visceral sensation they provide than any narrative coherency, but Jason Bourne is where I finally get off that train.
There's an opening chase in Athens that's reasonably engaging, but by the time we got to the Las Vegas-set climax, I'd mentally checked out. The filming style had transcended "visceral" and landed right smack in "incomprehensible." This has been a summer of disappointing sequels, but I think Jason Bourne may be more disappointing than most given that after such a long wait for juuuust the right project, this undercooked nothing-burger of a story is what brought Damon in from the cold. In hindsight, it might have been better to maintain The Bourne Retirement. C-
For more movie talk, including our thoughts on Star Trek Beyond, check out the big 100th episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: