Review: In ‘Jason Bourne,’ a Midlife Crisis for a Harried Former Assassin


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Matt Damon stars as the former assassin in “Jason Bourne.”

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Universal Pictures

Jason Bourne, taciturn and carb-free, hurries through various European capitals — Rome, Athens, London — with the grim determination of a tourist who desperately needs a men’s room but is too proud to ask for directions. Really, of course, he’s being followed and watched, at street level and from a wired-up surveillance hub on the other side of the ocean, where his erstwhile employers in the C.I.A. track him as if he were the quarry in a high-stakes game of Pokémon Go.

Like Jigglypuff or Snorlax, Bourne is a semi-beloved pop-culture throwback brought back into circulation because …well, why not? It’s summer. People need something to do, and at the moment, two hours of make-believe paranoia might provide a soothing respite from the real thing.

The good news and the bad news is that “Jason Bourne,” directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Matt Damon as everyone’s favorite amnesiac assassin, feels like old times. The band is back together for a reunion tour, and if some of the original members are missing, the new additions have learned the chords and are even permitted to try out a few fresh riffs.

Almost a decade has passed since the last time Mr. Greengrass and Mr. Damon stepped out in this franchise together, and their return is both welcome and weary. In 2004, when Mr. Greengrass took over the series with “The Bourne Supremacy” (Doug Liman had directed “The Bourne Identity” two years before), his approach to action filmmaking felt distinctive and new. Now, his vigorous, rigorous style of shooting and editing — maximum speed and maximum chaos rendered with elegant, sometimes breathtaking coherence — has kind of an old-school, greatest-hits vibe.

The thrill isn’t entirely gone. It’s just a little more subdued. Mr. Damon, for his part, is as subdued as ever. Jason Bourne is a uniquely passive action hero, a man who runs on pure survival instinct as he tries to figure out who is after him and why. After so many years and so much running, his existential predicament has become a matter of routine. He knows that he knows some bad stuff — and his pursuers know it, too — but he’s not entirely sure what he knows or how he knows it. For him, the resulting confusion is harrowing. For us, it’s part of the fun, like the insidery frisson of hearing nuggets of spy jargon hissed by unsmiling people in dark suits. “Alpha team, I need a sitrep, stat!”

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Trailer: ‘Jason Bourne’

Matt Damon returns to his most iconic role in “Jason Bourne.”


By UNIVERSAL PICTURES on Publish Date May 11, 2016.


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The sitrep here is that Bourne, who has been pursuing his Plan B career as a bare-knuckle boxer in the wilds of Greece, is approached by his former colleague and fellow Company renegade, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). She has some information, harvested from a hacker camp in Iceland, concerning past Agency skulduggery involving Bourne’s father (Gregg Henry, in flashbacks). Nicky and Jason rendezvous in Athens in the middle of a riot, and the globe-trotting chase commences, with Robert Dewey, the director of the C.I.A. (Tommy Lee Jones), and Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), one of his ambitious underlings, running the show amid the satellite feeds and data displays of suburban Virginia. Their main operational weapon on the ground overseas is a killer known only as the Asset (Vincent Cassel), who harbors a personal grudge against Bourne.

This is perhaps the most striking feature of “Jason Bourne”: Virtually all the major characters — good, bad and in-between — work for the same organization, at least on a consulting basis. There are dark whispers about external threats, and invocations of the tension between security and privacy in the digital age, but geopolitics and technology are scaffolding for what is essentially a movie about human resources challenges in a large bureaucracy.

This chapter in the series, coming after the emergence of WikiLeaks and the growth of social media, takes passing note of contemporary realities. Edward J. Snowden’s name is dropped a few times, and there is a subplot about a young tech mogul named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), who is trying to extricate his company from Dewey’s pocket. Terrorism and surveillance are treated both as facts of life and as vaporous abstractions. When Dewey talks about protecting the homeland, or Kalloor speaks of the importance of protecting consumer data, the words carry no real conviction, on the part of either the characters or the filmmakers.

There is also a rote quality to much of the action, an absence of passion, if not of skill. I suspect that some youngsters out there will complain that “Jason Bourne” is tedious and irrelevant. Without disputing the substance of that judgment, I can’t help taking it personally. The tedium, I would argue, is not incidental but essential, because this is not really a spy thriller or even a foot-chase and fist-fight-driven action movie, but rather a somber meditation on the crisis of the Gen-X professional in the throes of middle age.

I’m not casting shade on Mr. Damon, who at 45 looks terrific, with the complete opposite of a dad bod and a residual Will Hunting twinkle in his eye. But reflect for a moment on the character he plays, who must do his own self-reflection on the fly and under duress. Jason, for all his prodigious talent and carefully honed technique, finds himself permanently stalled on the career ladder, unable either to advance or to quit. To make matters worse, he is caught in a generational pincers grip, squeezed on one side by a self-aggrandizing and sentimental baby-boomer boss (Mr. Jones) and on the other by a tech-savvy millennial rising quickly through the ranks (Ms. Vikander). Poor Bourne is burdened with inconvenient historical knowledge even as he must fight a perpetual battle against his own obsolescence.

So I have to say I’m rooting for the guy. I doubt he’ll ever truly figure out who he is. But at least he can keep moving until his 401(k) is fully vested, and he can finally get around to writing that novel.

“Jason Bourne” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). A modest body count by the standards of the genre. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes.

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