Arthritic "Jason Bourne" Fails Cast, Fanbase

2012’s “The Bourne Legacy” saw Universal Pictures tend to their Robert Ludlum-based spy series without star Matt Damon. Response to the low-key Jeremy Renner vehicle was tepid across the board, necessitating franchise CPR. Jump forward to 2016 and Damon and director Paul Greengrass (who directed the second and third Bourne movies) are back in the fold. Great! Except, their movie lives down to it own uninspired title, frittering away a topical storyline and the return of its beloved title character on an impossibly tired action movie template. It sells out a stellar cast, a strong opportunity for reinvention, and worst of all, a fanbase that deserves better.

Paul Greengrass has long been criticized for his shaky handheld camera work, a technique known to induce nausea (or worse) in moviegoers prone to motion sickness. The shaky cam returns here, but it’s dwarfed by a pack of other issues. Topmost, the screenplay – the first in the series co-written by Greengrass – is a stew of stale dialogue and half-assed globetrotting, reiterating Jason Bourne (Damon) as a still off-grid assassin waiting for the right time to resurface. For some reason Bourne has chosen to make his bones as a street fighter in Greece, inhumanly patient in waiting to topple the corrupt CIA agents who stole his memory and made him an unwilling killer.

After a plain-Jane set-up and a lifeless chase sequence involving Julia Stiles as returning Bourne ally Nicky Parsons, Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse can’t summon much beyond an overly familiar take on the genre with but a few tweaks. This time, Bourne goes up against authoritarian CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) in an attempt to expose a variety of black ops programs like Treadstone, the one that ruined his life. There are some new ingredients – the story gives Jason some daddy issues and there’s a good CIA agent played by Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander – but the recipe is the same. Intrigue, chase scene, dialogue, chase scene, shootout.

Vikander’s agent Heather Lee might have been a breath of fresh air if not for her drowsy characterization and utter lack of magnetism. (In her defense, there’s only so much an actor can do with the old “enhance photo” shtick.) English thespian Riz Ahmed (“Nightcrawler”) is a bright spot, even though his tech mogul Aaron Kalloor is nearly a character out of HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” and his dialogue seems ripped from Edwards Snowden’s Twitter page. He’s such a good performer, though, that the film finally achieves a little bit of lift when he gets in a spat with Jones’ character in a restaurant booth. It’s an engaging scene that reminds of what the series can be when it’s not figuratively and literally lost to wheel spinning.

Damon appears understandably apathetic about playing, for the fourth time, a blank slate ever on the cusp of fully uncovering his past. Some progress is made here in Bourne’s continuing identity crisis, but not enough to prohibit more adventures, which act III plainly sets up. No, Damon contentedly delivers his limited dialogue with the minimum amount of effort, matching just about everything else around him.

There is a villain besides Jones’ Director Dewey: Vincent Cassel as an assassin forever hot on Bourne’s trail. The character is such an afterthought, such a non-factor that it’s easy to imagine a version of the film where he doesn’t appear at all – only as an unseen threat receiving instructions on the other end of Dewey’s earpiece. That might have worked in the film’s favor, providing a modicum of suspense; some sense of mystery that the movie goes entirely without. Cassel is barely in the film and barely a character, serving as nothing but a symbol of the project’s failures.

Paul Greengrass has never made a bad film and “Jason Bourne” isn’t one. There are enough flashes of the old magic to sustain it – mostly in its middle third – and the movie is undeniably topical. But it’s also hollow and humorless, going through the motions of what a Bourne movie is supposed to be without taking any time for self-reflection. It plays like a very early draft of a better movie, one where the rust is off and the people making it are having fun doing it. Unfortunately, the reality of “Jason Bourne” is one of obligation and monotony, as if it’s not Bourne with a gun perpetually to his head, but the people writing him.

Audiences won’t feel quite as embattled, but they’re likely to sense the tedium all the way to their bones – and be wary of revisiting Bourne films past.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 29, 2016
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriter: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse
Starring: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Tommy Lee Jones, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language)