Toward the end of the fourth film in the Bourne franchise (or fifth, depending on how you look at it), a National Security honcho declares to an underling, "We're still trying to come up with a narrative of what happened." Which sounds like the perfect veiled screenwriter apology, considering that Matt Damon's return to the series he supposedly left for good makes the plot a distant priority over everything else. Sure, Jason Bourne has all the hallmarks of a story – there are characters who are involved in scenes, and those scenes indicate the forward march of time – but nothing here actually matters. Like the foggy past haunting its amnesic title character, Jason Bourne could or could not have actually happened; ultimately, it makes no difference.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself, which is what Paul Greengrass's movie tends to do a lot of, too – tripping over itself to get to the next thing, a thing that typically involves blunt-force trauma. Instead, let's go back to the beginning – nine years ago to be precise, when Damon and Greengrass declared they were done with the franchise they had carried through four movies (well, three for Greengrass; the first film, The Bourne Idenitity, was helmed by Doug Liman). "I discovered in my heart I didn't have another one in me," the director said after 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum. Added Damon: "We have ridden that horse as far as we can."
That's all well and good, but Universal had a billion-dollar brand on its hands that they couldn't let go to waste, so Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum screenwriter Tony Gilroy was recruited to reboot it, with Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, another rogue spy with the feds at his back. The Bourne Legacy didn't fare too well, though. Perhaps because Gilroy was more interested in Cross's drug addiction (rewatch the film and drink every time you hear Renner utter the word "chems" and you will be in a stupor by the half-hour mark), or perhaps because audiences just missed Damon's captivating presence as the boy-next-door who could kill you with a paperclip. Or maybe Gilroy's smooth, noir-y direction was too much of a shift from Greengrass's intense shaky-cam style, which has a unique appeal all its own.
For these reasons and more, Damon and Greengrass were coaxed – with what I can only assume was a dump truck full of cash – for a new go at everyone's favourite forgetful superkiller. Never say never and all that, right? Well, maybe this time they should have, because while Jason Bourne isn't half-bad as an action movie, it is a nakedly hollow exercise in resuscitating brand loyalty.
Which brings us back to the narrative, or lack thereof. If you've seen one Bourne film, you might just be able to write the script for this one, which was penned/pencil-crayoned by Greengrass and his long-time editor, Christopher Rouse. It's almost as if the pair simply checked off the boxes of previous entries: Bourne is on the run, again. He's struggling to remember details of his murky past, again. There's a badass, nameless European assassin on his trail, again. The U.S. government is developing a shady new espionage program, again. There's even a crusty character actor playing a corrupt CIA chief, again (Tommy Lee Jones, doing a fine-enough version of the role previously occupied by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Edward Norton and David Strathairn – though at this point you have to wonder what the job security is like over in Langley).
To what end these rehashed plot threads exist is never made clear – other than facilitating more throat-punching and motorcycle-riding antics from Bourne, of course. And to Damon and Greengrass's credit, these are mostly pulled off with aplomb. A chase scene through the riot-filled streets of Athens is a thrilling, tense exercise in cinematic whiplash. A game of cat and mouse in London delivers a great balance of teases and twists. And the Las Vegas-set climax is something to behold – a loud, visceral round of automobile mayhem. What's best is that the destruction is limited to a few city blocks – a refreshing change of pace after a summer spent watching whole cities razed via CGI.
It's more difficult, though, to find much satisfaction in the rest of the product. And make no mistake, this is more a product than a film – a weaponization of mid-aughts nostalgia designed to spark box-office records. According to Bourne producer Frank Marshall, there are still plans for more films featuring both Jason and Aaron – a Bourne Cinematic Universe! Maybe Bourne: Civil War! None of this changes the fact, though, that Jason Bourne, the movie, offers little incentive to further explore Jason Bourne, the character. At the end of Greengrass's new film, Jason remains the same man he was before, and the world much the same as he left it. Some spies just need to stay out in the cold.