It’s been nine years since we last saw Matt Damon racing around the world and beating people up as brainwashed assassin Jason Bourne… and the weight of those interim years rests heavily upon this fourth installment. Oh, it’s not that Damon (The Martian, Interstellar), now 46 years old, isn’t up to the physical demands of the role. In fact, his Bourne is significantly beefier here: bigger, more intimidating, just plain more dangerous in an all-muscle kind of way. (Bourne appears to have been scraping out a meager living since we last saw him as a bare-knuckle boxer in underground fights, which perhaps necessitated getting pumped up.) Damon stalks around as if he is just barely restraining Bourne’s power, and when he unleashes it, he owns the screen, simultaneously indulging Bourne’s menace and suggesting that he hasn’t yet let it fully uncoil.
Nor has returning director Paul Greengrass lost his mojo. (Greengrass did not direct the first film, 2002’s The Bourne Identity, but did helm the second and third, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum.) He remains an absolute master of breathless nonstop action that, even as it embraces chaos, is never less than tightly controlled and supremely comprehensible. Whether it’s an exhausting motorcycle getaway from assassins through streets overrun by rioters in Athens or a relentless demolition derby through ordinary traffic in Las Vegas, we are right in the middle of the mayhem, bombarded by thrills and terror while never losing track of what is actually happening. No one does this better than Greengrass.
No, it’s that the world has moved on from the initial confusion and upheaval — geopolitical, cultural, technological — of the years just after 9/11, and Jason Bourne can’t keep up with how much darker and grimmer the world we’ve moved into is. It tries, but… Those early 2000s Bourne flicks had an urgency to them even when they weren’t directly addressing the global mess, and when they were — as in Ultimatum, the best of a terrific bunch — it made for crackerjack pop filmmaking. (Ultimatum’s critical and box-office success surely reassured Hollywood that politics can sit comfortably inside action blockbusters, and must have helped pave the way for everything from the overtly political plots of the Marvel movies to the fact that the Hunger Games movies got made at all.) Jason Bourne makes a few feints toward engaging with the spiraling disaster that is today’s zeitgeist, but it doesn’t do anything with them. It brings in a Julian Assange-esque Internet whistleblower called Christian Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer: The Baader Meinhof Complex, Speed Racer) but then almost instantly dismisses him. It touches on the privacy concerns that total surveillance raise via tech wunderkind Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed: Nightcrawler, Closed Circuit), but the movie cannot even decide what his “Deep Dream” project is about: first it’s a “new platform,” then it’s something to do with “social networking.” Greengrass, who wrote the script with Christopher Rouse, seems to think that it’s enough that the CIA wants a backdoor to peek in on Deep Dream’s users, but it’s all little more than a vague wave of the hand at a hot topic. That’s not enough.
And I just can’t figure out why Bourne is back. His story was pretty much wrapped up after Ultimatum: he had regained his memory and was out of the professional-killer game. Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles: Silver Linings Playbook, Girl Most Likely), grown from the clumsy CIA functionary of Identity into someone genuinely dangerous, shows up here to convince him there’s more to learn — though her intriguing line “Remembering everything doesn’t mean you know everything,” so memorable from the trailer, doesn’t actually appear in the movie — but what that turns out to be isn’t particularly thrilling, and it feels rather tacked on when it finally comes out in the end. The promise of the character of Nicky isn’t explored much, either, and she exits quickly, leaving Bourne without a humanizing companion such as he had in the first movie in Franka Potente’s Marie… or even as Jeremy Renner’s supersoldier had in Rachel Weisz in the 2012 spinoff The Bourne Legacy.
Everything looks great on paper here: Damon’s brawny presence; the smartly staged action; the globehopping from Rome to Reykjavik, Berlin to London, and beyond; the always cool Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs, Men in Black III) as the director of the CIA; Alicia Vikander (Burnt, The Danish Girl) as a smooth, slippery CIA analyst; Vincent Cassel (Child 44, Trance) as yet another professional killer. And it’s not unfun. But it feels less black ops than old hat, like we’ve been here before. We have… and this visit ultimately disappears in a wisp of inconsequence.