Jason Bourne is in exhilarating form on his fourth screen outing, but the familiar plot suggests Matt Damon's ex-CIA spy could do with some new enemies.
It’s been nine years since Matt Damon’s last outing as amnesiac ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum; four since franchise spin-off The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner. Does his character still have what it takes to survive in the deviously deadly world of black-ops skulduggery? And, even more to the point, can the Bourne series still cut it in an era when devious and deadly outrages in the real world outdo the cinema on an almost weekly basis.
Happily, by decking a Serbian bare-knuckle prizefighter with a single blow in his opening scene, Damon’s Bourne proves he still packs a punch. No longer amnesiac, he’s been living off the grid and is currently somewhere on the Greek-Albanian border. If this episode is anything to go by, his present occupation is a bruising way to make a living, but at least he is beyond the reach of his former spymasters. Predictably, that all changes when his erstwhile ally, rogue CIA operative turned whistleblower Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), contacts him with fresh information about Treadstone, the black-ops programme that turned him into a killer, that made him who he is.
There we all were thinking the tangled issue of Bourne’s origins had been straightened out once and for all in the last film. Far from it. He’s still having flashbacks – this time to a final encounter with his father, then similarly embroiled with the CIA – and his fragmentary recall propels him into yet another punishing solo mission to uncover the agency’s deceptions.
As this description suggests, returning director Paul Greengrass isn’t exactly breaking new ground with the fourth (or fifth) entry in the Bourne series (his third). His script, co-written with editor Christopher Rouse, does embrace the hot-button issues of global surveillance and of privacy versus security – a key figure in the plot is a Mark Zuckerberg-like social media tycoon played by Riz Ahmed who may or may not be in cahoots with the CIA – but in most other respects the narrative is very much a re-run of previous instalments.
Again, Bourne is up against a grey agency eminence – Tommy Lee Jones’s CIA boss is another grizzled, middle-aged white male with a shady agenda, as were his predecessors Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity), Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) and David Straithairn (The Bourne Ultimatum). Again, there is a hotshot woman keen to prove she is a match for her male peers – Alicia Vikander’s rising CIA star filling the shoes vacated by Joan Allen. And, again, Bourne finds himself shadowed by a rival assassin – a brutally ruthless figure played by Vincent Cassel, referred to only as The Asset.
Yet even though Bourne and we have been here before, there’s no danger of nodding off. Greengrass, deploying hand-held cameras and quick-fire editing to electrifying effect, gives a thrilling urgency to the familiar scenes of chase and combat. On occasion, the action is even more exciting than before, as when Bourne uses a political demonstration as a means to evade pursuers - just as he did in Supremacy. That film’s Berlin demo, however, was a tame affair compared with the ferocious anti-austerity riot in Athens that forms the backdrop to the exhilarating scene here.
So, Bourne and Bourne are still up to the mark. Whether that will hold true if there is a further sequel is open to question. The series really needs some genuinely fresh plot twists and fresh enemies if it is to continue. If Bourne does return, however, I expect he will be against similar foes. We probably wouldn’t want it any other way. When we go to the cinema looking for escapist entertainment, it is perversely far more comforting to imagine that our governments and secret services are up to no good than it is to confront some of the other terrors currently besetting our world.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 123 mins. Director Paul Greengrass
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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