Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass, 2016)
The last time we saw Matt Damon in an existential crisis was just over 10 months ago, as he struggled to survive on the hostile landscape of Mars, in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. In that film, he projected a jovial confidence and competence that belied the very dire straits of his situation. Now, in Jason Bourne, the fourth Bourne movie to star Damon (the last, The Bourne Ultimatum, came out in 2007, after The Bourne Identity, in 2002, and The Bourne Supremacy, in 2004), Damon is even more competent, but maybe not quite so confident and certainly not jovial. This may, in fact, be the grimmest that either he or his character has ever been. Perhaps it’s the stress of doing the same kinds of stunts he performed 14 years ago, when he was but 32, though you would never guess it from his bulked-up physique; more likely, it’s the exigencies of a cinematic universe grown ever more used to the pessimistic worldview of post-Dark Knight superhero films. Whatever the reason, one of the joys of the Bourne series (launched, in book form, by author Robert Ludlum in 1980) is the combination of seemingly real-world political intrigue and visceral action sequences that feel more dangerous and thrilling than anything on offer in the ever-expanding catalogue of either the Marvel or DC franchises. The new movie, directed – as were the last two – by Paul Greengrass (who also gave us Captain Phillips, among others), filled with fast-paced car chases and fight scenes, does not disappoint in this regard, unless one minds an appalling level of collateral damage. If the senseless deaths of innocent bystanders – staged for your entertainment – cause you no pangs of conscience, however, then sit back, relax, grab the popcorn, and enjoy the ride.
When first we meet our hero, he is on his way to an illicit boxing match in an undisclosed location. He strips down, wraps his knuckles in tape, then turns his bulging back to the camera, where we see the many scars and bullet wounds. Despite the local crowd’s clear preference for his rival, he dispatches him with one punch. Clearly, he hasn’t lost his edge. This opening follows an initial series of flashbacks with material from the earlier installations, reminding us of some of the details from Bourne’s last adventures, including the discovery of his true name. If you recall, as the series progressed, Bourne came closer and closer to uncovering the secrets behind Treadstone, the top-secret black-ops program that initially recruited and trained him. As this movie begins, he has no intention of further pursuing his inquiries until former fellow government agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, Blue) tracks him down with new information about an even more dangerous CIA operation just getting off the ground. Her arrival, however, compromises Bourne’s cover, and soon they are both running from a deadly CIA assassin – called, simply, the “asset” – played by the charismatically menacing French actor Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises). And so the chase is on.
As is par for the course for the genre, we jump easily around the globe, marveling at the efficiency with which the CIA tracks down our hero. If only it were that simple. Then again, the real-life spy agency doesn’t have Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), who runs the cinematic organization’s cyber division. Hampered only by an odd accent meant to cover her European origins, this otherwise marvelous Swedish actress is a model of glowering intensity and ambition as she makes the case to her Machiavellian boss, played by the increasingly craggy Tommy Lee Jones (The Homesman), that she should be the one to find Bourne. Jones, always ready with a malicious twinkle in his eye, acquiesces, but we know he’s playing a dangerous game where he controls the stakes.
Ultimately, the film comes down to the obligatory mano a mano contest of strength and skills between Cassel and Damon, equally matched in muscle and scowl. Greengrass stages the mayhem with his usual dexterity, but exciting as it all is, there’s something callous in the massive numbers of incidental deaths this time around. Perhaps the world we live in, where terrorist attacks claim real lives in real places, makes the casual insouciance with which the bodies are dispatched feel somehow particularly indecent. All that grimness, which at first seems to drive Bourne towards stopping his government’s madness, finally does nothing more than make him even more single-minded in his own violent vendetta. Still, before the bile may rise from your gut, you’ll have to admit that the adrenaline pulsing through your veins intoxicates in a distinctly cinematic way. Good and evil can coexist, no?