Can you complain about a movie that delivers exactly what it promises? That’s the challenge presented by Jason Bourne, which deftly replicates the story and tone of the blockbuster franchise’s prior entries but fails to feel even half as alive. Along with the much-anticipated return of Matt Damon to the lead role, a beat-for-beat sequel might be enough for the biggest Bourne fans. It shouldn’t be. The joy of film—or any art, really—is in the discovery of something new, and Jason Bourne, for all its competence, is totally devoid of newness.
We find Bourne on the coast of Greece, recovering from the events of Ultimatum by fighting in an underground bareknuckle boxing ring. Like James Bond in the opening scenes of Skyfall, he’s not doing it for the money; the dude just still has some stuff to work out. When his old friend Nicky (Julia Stiles) is assassinated for hacking the CIA database (looking for info on its famous Black Ops programs), Bourne is drawn back into his old life. Picking up where Nicky left off, he finds some mysterious information about his father’s involvement in Operation Treadstone. As he sorts out the details, he must avoid being captured or killed by the shady new CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his protégé Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), who unleashes on him an assassin known only as Asset (Vincent Cassel), a Frenchman possessing a similar set of superhuman skills.
It’s a problem that must keep the producers of action franchises up at night. You have to keep upping the action with each installment, but your hero has to walk away and continue fighting. The end result is that even action heroes who are grounded in reality (like Bourne or John McClane from Die Hard) possess superhuman abilities by the fourth or fifth film, and the tension evaporates. How are we supposed to feel invested in Bourne’s survival when we know he can survive a crash-riddled car chase with a Humvee on the Las Vegas Strip—with only a slight limp to show for it?
Other than the increased wreckage, Jason Bourne feels terribly similar to the earlier films in the franchise. Clearly, this is the film the studio wanted. You don’t bring back the star of a smash franchise and the man who directed its two biggest installments and give the audience something different. But that’s the problem. No matter how hard the filmmakers work to convince us otherwise, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Jason Bourne has no reason to exist, except to make money for everyone involved.
What would have helped is more screen time for Riz Ahmed (currently seen in HBO’s The Night Of), who plays the CEO of a social media platform that has been secretly feeding user information to the CIA since its inception. His storyline may be a transparent attempt by the screenwriters to inject some topicality into the film—a mix of the personal and political is this franchise’s trademark—but Ahmed’s eyes reveal conflict that the film otherwise lacks. When he is onscreen, Jason Bourne feels more electric than in any of its car chases, fistfights, or shoot-outs.
But there is little time to linger on Ahmed’s brilliant performance. Jason Bourne moves too quickly—no shot seems to last more than a second or two—making the audience feel like they are always playing catch-up, even though its plot is deceptively simple. Maybe that’s how it tricks us into thinking it has something important to say. The Bourne franchise has always positioned itself as the thinking man’s action movie, but the head, in both biology and cinema, cannot survive without the heart.
Jason Bourne opens in theaters everywhere today.