Super serious superspy Jason Bourne has lived through some fantastical government conspiracies in his onscreen outings to date, particularly for a franchise that began in relative simplicity: An amnesiac assassin wakes up in the ocean, wondering why he’s got fast-twitch killer instincts and bullets in his back.
But in Jason Bourne, the fourth go-round to star Matt Damon as the ex-black ops pawn with a conscience, the shadowy cinematic world of Robert Ludlum’s spy novels comes uncomfortably close to our increasingly scary real one. Are the movies keying into a sense of fatalistic dread that’s seeping into the collective consciousness, or is life simply imitating art because the end times feel more and more inevitable?
Jason Bourne reunites Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum helmer Paul Greengrass with Damon after the franchise’s brief flirtation with a genetically enhanced Jeremy Renner in the Bourne Legacy. The time away has served them well. That irritating, headache-inducing shaky cam aesthetic synonymous with Greengrass’s earlier Bourne movies has smoothed out considerably, thank goodness. Here the director, scripting with Christopher Rouse, finally begins to lead the series’ wildly expansive plot tangle of secret government programs and conflicting agendas back to its more compelling roots: Who is Jason Bourne?
As the film opens, the better question is: Who the heck is Nicky Parsons? The once compliant Treadstone analyst has had her eyes opened to the shady dealings of the program she once served. Now she packs a gun and a hacker’s arsenal of keyboard tricks, determined to expose the government’s morally dubious secret programs in the name of transparency and justice. With Bourne contentedly in hiding, it’s Julia Stiles’ Parsons who kicks the film into gear nine years after we last saw her.
Driven by her own righteous awakening against The Man, Nicky’s gone full Snowden. And amid a trove of stolen files she intends to make public she’s found a clue to Bourne’s past. He’s been plagued by elusive flashbacks to his pre-assassin life, so it’s enough to tempt him out into the open for the first time in years, and they agree to meet in the only place where the CIA’s goons will have a tough time taking them out: in the middle of an anti-government riot in Greece’s Syntagma Square.
The sequence is stunningly orchestrated. Meeting under the cover of chaos as stealthy U.S. agents close in and CIA suits watch from Washington, Bourne and Nicky weave their way through the darkened streets of Athens as the bitter unrest between police and protesters boils over into violence. Molotov cocktails fly through the air. Cops in riot gear shove back the angry crowds. Greengrass captures the cat-and-mouse chase with sparse dialogue and a maestro’s touch, tracking the converging paths and agendas of multiple parties at once until they collide, sending Bourne back out into the world on a mission to expose his makers.
It’s pure coincidence of timing that the sequence conjures fresh memories of civil unrest in America of late, where our news media has been saturated with the alarming sight of militarized police forces clashing with citizens proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter.” In Jason Bourne, popular uprisings of citizens against their governments are such a matter of course in a tumultuous world that the only safe space for a couple of spies is right in the eye of the storm.
Greengrass introduces another thread pregnant with too-real verisimilitude, intent on grounding Bourne’s long-running saga in a milieu of our times. Silicon Valley tech star Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, having a breakout year) is on the verge of introducing his latest social media invention on the world’s stage, but he’s got a huge problem: CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who secretly funded Kalloor’s first start-up, has come to collect. Kalloor, too, wrestles with his debt to his country. Is breaching the civil liberties of individuals worth the cost of protecting national security?
Sure it’s all a little on the nose, as thriller yarns tend to be. The late Ludlum, who died in 2001, cranked out airport novel bestsellers like no one else. He’d approve of Bourne battling his way into 2016 against colluding tech giants and authoritarian government groups, pulled back into the spy game against his will with renewed purpose. To get there, though, takes Bourne working through some newly discovered daddy issues. At least in doing so Jason Bourne gives Jason Bourne his groove back and throws new adversaries with their own complex agendas in his way.
One of them, a fellow assassin (Vincent Cassel) with his own score to settle, hunts Bourne on behalf of the CIA repping yet another secret program of supersoldiers the government’s cooked up on the sly. He and Bourne clash brutally, two men with twin destinies cut from the same cloth, destroying the entire Las Vegas strip in the film’s most brazenly staged action sequence. In him Bourne finds his best philosophical match since he and Clive Owen stalked each other in the French countryside.
Bourne’s most compelling new adversary, however, is a woman—ambitious CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). Like all of Jason Bourne’s morally ambiguous baddies, Dewey’s millennial protégé resembles a ghost from the past. She’s a steelier, younger Nicky Parsons, an ally on the inside stirred to Bourne’s cause even as she toes the agency line. As Jason Bourne takes its sweet time playing a familiar note—Bourne’s struggle to remember his origins and find those responsible for his enslavement, etc.—it’s Vikander’s petite and cunning Lee who steals the spotlight.
In the end it’s not Damon’s emotional journey as Bourne that you remember so much as the rightful damage he’s wrought, one man doing his part to topple the schemes that threaten to undue life and liberty for others. But visceral echoes of real life accidentally make the over-the-top action feel more prescient than anyone could have intended. Greengrass’s last-act car chase showstopper is the most ambitiously destructive action sequence to happen to Sin City in the movies since Con Air. But just a few hours before I watched Damon wreak carnage upon countless cars on the crowded Strip, chasing Cassel at the wheel of an armored truck as he plowed his way through traffic, a terrorist attacker with a cargo truck had plowed his way through hundreds of unsuspecting victims in Nice, France, claiming 84 lives.
We got no trigger warning, no heads-up. In a real world marred by new unexpected horrors each day, those are becoming relics of much more hopeful times.