Dir: Paul Greengrass. US. 2016. 123mins

Jason Bourne

Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon go through the motions expertly in Jason Bourne, an enjoyable but also stubbornly familiar sequel. Sending the adept super-spy on another globetrotting adventure that again pits him against the US intelligence community, this follow-up to 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum never matches the peaks of the original trilogy, but its smooth efficiency offers plenty of sturdy pleasures. What’s missing are the emotional underpinnings that made these movies not just top-flight action vehicles but also stirringly soulful.

This sequel’s most welcome addition is Alicia Vikander, as our hero’s smart, resourceful aide within America’s intelligence community. If Bourne is the film’s brawny bruiser, she is its sly fox.

Hitting several territories by July 29, Jason Bourne looks to regain the franchise’s lustre after 2012’s underperforming The Bourne Legacy, which didn’t feature Greengrass or Damon and grossed only $276 million worldwide. (By comparison, The Bourne Ultimatum collected $443 million.) It has been nine long years since Damon played the spy, but as he’s coming off the biggest hit of his career with The Martian ($630 million worldwide), there’s little doubt that he remains a major draw. Still, mildly positive reviews may lead to only tempered enthusiasm for this sequel, resulting in solid but perhaps not spectacular grosses.  

As the film begins, Bourne (Damon) is living off the grid, trying to avoid the watchful eye of CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who wants the onetime-assassin eliminated. But once Bourne discovers that the CIA is working on an even more ambitious spy program than the one that trained him — and that he might learn what happened to his agent father — Bourne comes out of the shadows, pursued by a ruthless hitman referred to only as The Asset (Vincent Cassel).

Although it has been nearly a decade since Damon and Greengrass have worked on a Bourne film, Jason Bourne’s kinetic filmmaking and the actor’s blunt intensity feel very much in keeping with their two previous collaborations, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. The frenetic action and jittery pace are executed skilfully by frequent Greengrass collaborators such as cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, editor Christopher Rouse (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Greengrass) and co-composer John Powell.

But if the series’ tone and look have been faithfully reproduced, what’s harder to recreate is the original films’ sense of a haunted man seeking to unlock the mystery of his murky past. As Bourne, Damon brought not just persuasive action-movie heroics but also vulnerability and apprehension, effectively conveying a killing machine who is not quite sure how he ended up that way.

Damon remains a sympathetic presence, but Jason Bourne never fully justifies Bourne’s return. The introduction of a long-dead father, who might have taken an important clue to Bourne’s past with him to the grave, feels more like a convoluted excuse for Greengrass to put Bourne through another white-knuckle thriller, rather than an organic extension of his lingering emotional scars. (Likewise, Jason Bourne’s attempts to continue the franchise’s criticism of America’s intrusive intelligence and national-security apparatuses tends to come across as forced.)

Consequently, this is the first Bourne film to derive almost the entirety of its entertainment value from the stylish sheen of Greengrass’s action set pieces. Damon’s Bourne is far more stoic this time around, economically dispensing with bad guys and outthinking his pursuers as always. However Greengrass and Damon do acknowledge that the actor, who turns 46 in October, is no longer the same agile young man, putting Bourne in harrowing situations where he fails, struggling mightily to stay alive.

Jones makes for a predictably crotchety CIA director who, no surprise, has dark secrets he’ll kill to have protected. Of Jason Bourne’s new cast members, he is perhaps the least interesting — far better is Riz Ahmed as the charismatic, calculating CEO of a popular social-media company whose secret relationship with the US government is crucial to the conspiracy Bourne will unravel.

But this sequel’s most welcome addition is Alicia Vikander, who plays Heather Lee, a brilliant hacker and intelligence expert who works under Dewey, quickly realising she should shift her loyalties towards the unfairly targeted Bourne. Essentially serving the same role Joan Allen played in earlier Bourne movies, Vikander is our hero’s smart, resourceful aide within America’s intelligence community, craftily undermining her draconian boss while trying to escape detection. The Oscar-winner develops what could have been a tech-spouting side character into something more interesting, letting us marvel as Heather stealthily befriends Bourne through secretive texts and other trickery. If Bourne is the film’s brawny bruiser, she is its sly fox.

Jason Bourne needs her spark since its overall structure echoes earlier instalments, particularly the story’s habit of hopping from city to city. (This time, it’s Berlin to London to Las Vegas.) Even the clever action set pieces suffer a bit because they’re not terribly different from what Greengrass has accomplished before. Still, Jason Bourne builds to a spectacular, wonderfully overblown sequence in Sin City that involves an elaborate car chase that leads to a ferocious mano-a-mano faceoff. At these moments, the familiarity and lack of dramatic heft don’t hurt the film so much — we can sit back and just enjoy the superb craftsmanship.

Production companies: Perfect World Pictures, Kennedy/Marshall, Captive Entertainment, Pearl Street

Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures, www.universalpictures.com

Producers: Frank Marshall, Jeffrey M. Weiner, Ben Smith, Matt Damon, Paul Greengrass, Gregory Goodman

Executive producers: Henry Morrison, Christopher Rouse, Jennifer Todd, Doug Liman

Screenplay: Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum

Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd

Art directors: Paul Kirby, Paul Inglis, Mark Scruton, Caty Maxey

Editor: Christopher Rouse

Music: John Powell & David Buckley

Website: www.jasonbournemovie.com

Main Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed