The original Bourne trilogy remains the de facto blockbuster franchise of the Bush era: big-budget spectacle built around the open knowledge of the C.I.A.’s torture program and its hasty legalization through shady executive intervention. Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne, the fifth film in the series, but an explicit continuation of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, suggests that little has changed in the intervening decade. As Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) tells Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) when she coaxes him out of hiding with information on new C.I.A. black ops, what the agency is planning now is even worse than the program that brainwashed and conditioned him.
That this conversation takes place in the middle of a full riot in Athens situates Jason Bourne in a broader context of global instability than its more Americentric predecessors. But Bourne remains an avatar of hawkish foreign policy and extralegal regime change, and the story only gains any meaning when it settles into nefarious C.I.A. operations and the ongoing manhunt for the rogue agent. In terms of narrative motivation, the only thing that differentiates Jason Bourne from the first three films in the series is the boost in technology that allows both the agency and its enemies to hack each other within seconds. Indeed, this film’s most significant thematic update is its focus on the collusion of the private tech sector with the state’s surveillance apparatus, embodied here by a social media platform whose founder, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), was given venture capital by the government in exchange for a backdoor into his product and its billions of users.
Frustratingly, however, this intriguing plot point is quickly buried in favor of a mutual quest for revenge, the agency for Bourne’s public leaks of classified information and Bourne for his conditioning. Bourne is an intentionally blank slate whose memories were erased in order to program him into a killing machine, a reflection of the secret activities and subsequent cover-ups of dangerously empowered, unchecked authorities. As such, what he represents has always been more interesting than who he is, but the film further complicates his already convoluted backstory to now implicate the C.I.A. in the murder of his father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry).
Where Greengrass’s action sequences were once visceral and intentionally unpleasant, now they just titillate.
This unnecessary wrinkle doesn’t deepen Bourne as a character; it simply strings out a mystery that has been resolved since the last Damon-led Bourne film. Similarly, the grudges that C.I.A. director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his choice assassin (Vincent Cassel) harbor for Bourne narrow the dramatic range of Bourne’s ongoing conflict with his former employers to its most literal parameters. Gone is the fatalistic camaraderie between Bourne and Clive Owen’s killer in The Bourne Identity, or the exploitation of Bourne’s patriotism by his handlers, replaced only by a shared desire to get even.
There are a few bright spots to be found throughout this superfluous sequel, most notably Alicia Vikander as agency up-and-comer Heather Lee. Young and still idealistic, Lee follows orders, but she also offers ideas to resolve the conflict, and her attempts to directly corral Bourne are played just ambiguously enough to suggest either genuine empathy for the man or simply a shrewd mind for career advancement. Paired with Jones, one of the most impressively laconic actors of all time, Vikander maintains her character’s poker face throughout, leaving her motives and schemes unclear.
If nothing else, Lee at least tries to minimize collateral damage, something that cannot be said for anyone else in the film. One of the more admirable traits of the original Bourne trilogy is how little pleasure it takes in its violence, but Jason Bourne revels in its vicious action sequences, merrily mowing down civilians and local law enforcement so as to capture the coolest car chase possible. With this film, Greengrass returned to the franchise direct and his influential shaky-cam style still befits the protagonist’s quick thinking in the midst of fights and escapes. But where the filmmaker’s action sequences were once visceral and intentionally unpleasant, now they just titillate. The climactic sequence in Las Vegas, complete with Cassel’s assassin smashing into dozens of occupied cars in a SWAT truck, is no more than your typically glib action sequence from a summer tent pole, but in the context of this series it feels loathsomely calculated, redirecting the franchise’s longstanding thematic cynicism into a callous assessment of its audience.