In Jason Bourne, the world's most misunderstood killing machine returns after a nine-year exile. For those whose memories may have hazed over, the movie offers a collection of what might be called Bourne's Greatest Hits. There are furious close-quarters smackdowns and hair-raising automotive sprees, and a sniper stalk through a crowded locale that recalls the Waterloo-station knuckle-biter in The Bourne Ultimatum. There's also a bumpy vehicular ascent of a flight of stone steps that's rather like the Mini Cooper bit in The Bourne Identity; and a scene in which a clever tech device is slipped into an unsuspecting character's pocket (another Ultimatum echo). Our man is also still prone to taking time-outs from the rampant hubbub in order to stare soulfully at his battered countenance in bathroom mirrors. It really is like old times.
But returning director Paul Greengrass makes this vintage stuff seem almost fresh, or at least still rousing. His intricately edited shaky-cam style—so influential on so many action movies that followed The Bourne Supremacy, his first film in the series—is no longer quite the revelation it once was, but it still packs a wallop.
The story, which Greengrass co-wrote with his editor, Bourne veteran Christopher Rouse, pretty much ignores The Bourne Legacy, the drab, Damon-less 2012 installment of the series. We come upon Jason some years after the end of Ultimatum, in which we saw him swimming away to fight another day. He currently earns a humble living competing in underground bare-knuckle boxing matches, and we see him in the dismal wilds of northern Greece flattening an opponent with a single punch. Even in his forties, he's still got it.
Meanwhile, in Reykjavik, Bourne's old partner/semi-love interest Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the ex-CIA field agent now gone rogue, has hacked into the agency website and downloaded a trove of documents detailing a variety of top-secret black ops. This incursion sets off an alarm at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where young cyber chief Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) immediately alerts her boss, the devious agency director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Heather wants to take charge of the search for Nicky—and by extension Bourne—because she believes Bourne can be brought back into the company fold. Dewey gives her the go-ahead, even though he'd much rather see these two CIA turncoats terminated.
In order to give the story an up-to-the-minute topical sheen, we also have Dewey plotting a new op that will allow the CIA and NSA to digitally eavesdrop on the whole world. (Like this hasn't already happened.) To do so, he needs the cooperation of a Silicon Valley whiz kid named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, very mogul-boy), who's proving resistant to Dewey's blandishments. Their conflict leads to a violent showdown at a Las Vegas software expo, which in turn leads to an extended stretch of automotive chaos on the Strip that's so eye-poppingly over the top that it probably won't be equaled anytime soon. (It goes on so long you kind of hope it won't.)
It's easy to believe that Greengrass, who in his days as a journalist cowrote the sensational true-espionage book Spycatcher, has a serious interest in the sort of intelligence skullduggery depicted here. But that's incidental to a movie that mainly seeks to revive a languishing blockbuster brand. We want more basic things from these pictures. We want the travel porn, for one thing, and we get it here, touching down in London, Berlin, New York and Athens (where there's a delirious sequence with Bourne and Nicky being hunted through the uproar of a political demonstration by an agency assassin, played with grim charisma by Vincent Cassel). We also want a touch of romance (Vikander's character, with her ambiguous motivations, offers promise in this regard), and at least another sliver of information about Bourne's cloudy past (there's some unsettling news about his dead father, also an agent). Most of all we need Damon's Bourne, still isolated, still conflicted, still searching for a kernel of human feeling in his wrecked personality.
The movie has a by-the-numbers feel that's a little bit disappointing, but it serves to remind us what was so great about the earlier films. It also suggests the possibility that there's still life in this 14-year-old franchise, and that more inventive extensions of the story are still possible. That would require Damon and Greengrass sticking around to explore them, though.