Jason Bourne has been gone for nine years, and Jason Bourne does a good job making you feel it. Bourne’s inner torment and fatigue since the end of The Bourne Ultimatum expose themselves immediately through his underground bare-knuckle brawls and world-weary performance, until, yet again, circumstances around him pull him back into a fight with the CIA. While critics ponder the purpose of this bigger, action-packed sequel in a franchise now running into its sixteenth year, longtime fans will be pleased to know that the fifth film is not only everything they could have ever wanted in Matt Damon’s long-awaited return, but that the film subtly explores Jason Bourne’s purpose in an ever-changing world not just as a weapon, but as a man.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its shortcomings – it features a serviceable plot that could have been deeper if writers Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse hadn't been lazy about a few things. Some of the new characters in particular will leave you wanting more by the end credits when it comes to story depth. Since the end of Ultimatum, Bourne has been in deep inner conflict after learning the truth about his involvement in Treadstone and Blackbriar. The underground brawls he subjects himself to sound cliché at first, but Damon himself has argued that it’s Bourne’s way to cope, to release his inner rage and survive. He’s pulled back into the fight with the CIA after Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), now a hacker, delves deep into their network and discovers a dark truth that ties to Bourne like we’ve never expected.
It’s a revelation that believably angers and compels Bourne to seek Nicky out and discover the truth for himself, a truth that may or may not set him free for good. The hack sets off Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to locate and eliminate Nicky and Bourne in Athens during a ferocious riot sequence. Dewey is an old-fashioned CIA head living in the past while Heather is an unemotional young prodigy wiser and more ambitious in her approach. This directly leads to classic Bourne film sequences fans will love: long, taut foot chases, civil strife in the agency, and Bourne delivering massive concussions to his foes.
There is also Aaron Kalloor, a millennial CEO of a social media company with a connection to Dewey unexplored at first, but later reveals the film’s themes on cyber security and privacy. Unfortunately, with all the better things going on for Bourne, these themes are unexplored. The film had plenty of easy chances to link him to them but the aforementioned laziness in writing out some characters causes this sequel to feel a little less compelling than its predecessors in a number of ways. Supremacy and Ultimatum subtly used real world issues like oil pursuits and terrorism to justify the CIA programs that transformed David Webb and countless others into assassins, but here, cyber-security and privacy are merely mentioned and that’s it.
Kalloor is played charismatically by Riz Ahmed, but shamefully not given enough. Had the film strengthened his link to Dewey and Project Ironhand, the CIA would not feel like copy-paste renditions of former villains in the franchise. It’s been 9 years and the CIA can’t come up with new ideas since Blackbriar? Come on. Also, Heather Lee and Dewey come dangerously close to being Pam Landy and Ward Abbot clones from Supremacy. If it wasn’t for Alicia Vikander’s unemotional performance that lends lots of subtext to her lines and her interesting intentions for Bourne, the drama behind enemy lines would have been completely lost to the sin of laziness.
Thankfully, the characters both aiding and plotting against Bourne imply more depth to the character’s state of mind and have us rethinking his possible purpose in a world that may need a weapon like him. These well-paced and restrained moments have us care for Bourne a little more personally than before because we’re seeing him as a man just as much as a former agent and it gives his villains a believable agenda we can follow, even if some aren’t as fresh as they could have been. Jason Bourne relies on its title character’s goal to find closure and meaning, and feels like a continuation of the franchise rather than a cash-cow because it uses the nine-year Matt Damon hiatus to its advantage. If there are sequels lined up, then this film restrained itself to further explore Bourne’s place in the world in those future installments.
All the action sequences feel fresh, striking and earned. The Athens riot sequence in the first Act is a long, ferocious foot-chase-turned-car chase sequence that is among the most tense that Greengrass has ever directed. Hundreds of extras destroying property while Bourne and Nicky fight through it shows Greengrass’ increasing mastery in directing extras, sound-mixing and politically-driven action. And the Las Vegas car chase, with Bourne after a SWAT truck in a compact, is a balls-to-the-wall sequence that’s better than the trailers suggest. The fight sequences never match the Bourne v. Desh battle in Ultimatum, but are powered by the context of Bourne’s goals and the strength of his opposition.
Jason Bourne is easily one of the top three films in the five-film franchise. It delivers some of the most impressive action in the series and providing new reasons to care about the familiar spy: as a man more than just a weapon. Matt Damon’s performance as an aged, tortured Bourne is expectedly powerful in silent moments and just as striking when he speaks, supporting all the questions given about his state of mind at this point. The downside is that the drama within the supporting characters give way to a plot more serviceable rather than original, the film not exploring its possibilities to make this a more compelling Bourne film on a political level that has made the series stand out in the past. Still, as a longtime fan, Jason Bourne is a must-watch and a contender for best Action film of the year.