Coming in from the cold was fatal for Alec Leamas, the protagonist of John le Carre’s famous espionage novel that popularized the phrase, and while it hasn’t yet proven that bad for Jason Bourne, it’s been a pretty torturous business as depicted in the three Bourne pictures that began with “The Bourne Identity” in 2002 and continued with “The Bourne Supremacy” two years later and “The Bourne Ultimatum” in 2007—a series that now resumes in 2016. (“The Bourne Legacy,” from 2012, was a misguided attempt by Tony Gilroy—the co-writer of the three earlier films who assumed directing duties as well—to piggy-back on the earlier pictures. “Jason Bourne” simply ignores it and takes things up from where “Supremacy” closed—though some years later, of course.)
A major part of getting the series back on track is the return of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who gave the second and third installments such punch. Greengrass also took over the screenwriting from Gilroy, along with collaborator Christopher Rouse. “Jason Bourne” finally provides its eponymous, amnesiac hero with some definitive answers about how he became one of the CIA’s most efficient secret operatives. Of course, getting those answers is no walk in the park.
When the film opens, Bourne is living under the grid, making ends meet by grimly using his skills in underground fight clubs. At one of them in Athens, he’s approached by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the former CIA technician who’s become a source of information for a Wikileaks-style operation regarding CIA black ops. She tells Bourne about the real work of his father Richard Wells (Gregg Henry) and the facts behind his death. But while they try to evade capture during a riot in the Greek capital, Nicky is killed by an assassin known only as The Asset (Vincent Cassel), sent by CIA head Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) to eliminate the threat to the agency both she and Bourne pose.
But Bourne escapes with the encrypted files Parsons has provided, and he’s soon off first to Berlin to meet with Parsons’ confederate Christian Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer), and then to London and Las Vegas, to discover the identities of those responsible for his father’s death and his own misery. Along the way other characters pop into the action—Dewey’s more modern but very ambitious aide Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander); Malcolm Smith (Bill Camp), the English doctor who served as young Bourne’s supervisor; and Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), a Silicon Valley mogul who’s played ball with Dewey’s surveillance efforts in the past but is now balking at the director’s more expansive plans—and who becomes the focus of a scene that might make you remember the finale of “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Greengrass and Rouse manage to tie the strands of their scenario together with exceptional clarity and the necessary modicum of plausibility, though in all honesty one couldn’t call “Jason Bourne” a brilliantly constructed narrative; the story merely does the job, and frankly the connecting links, in which characters walk through corridors, down alleys and across streets to catch (or evade) others, sometimes seem interminable, however tensely shot (by Barry Ackroyd) and edited (by Rouse). What sets the film apart are—what a surprise!—the action sequences, in which Greengrass, Ackroyd and Rouse really excel.
The first of these—the entire Athenian episode—is a particular dandy, long but brilliantly constructed and realized. A second—set in the streets of London—isn’t as impressive, but solid nonetheless. It’s unfortunate that the culminating chase through the streets of Las Vegas is the weakest, going on too long and coming off, for the most part, like something one might expect in a Liam Neeson movie. It does have one nice touch, though, when The Asset, driving a SWAT vehicle, doesn’t try to avoid traffic but simply sweeps it aside, the cars pushed up like waves being roiled by a passing shark. It’s the kind of moment that can raise your spirits even as the sequence otherwise grinds on, ending with a fight scene that exponentially tops those underground bouts we saw at the beginning.
Damon’s Bourne, of course, isn’t the most expressive of heroes, but the actor brings a stalwart sense of determination to the character, and Jones parries him with a wittily malicious turn as the aging, duplicitous CIA chief. Vikander is cool and collected as a woman whose changing loyalties of the moment have a strong connection to her own professional priorities, and it’s nice to see Stiles again, though her appearance is relatively brief. While Cassel makes a suitably nasty villain, though, the amiable Ahmed can’t quite convince as a principled software guru—maybe the role is just too implausible for anybody to be persuasive in. But the one cast member who truly seems badly used is Ato Essandoh as Jeffers, a CIA agent always at Dewey’s right hand. He’s sadly compelled to deliver entirely too many astonished, embarrassing reaction shots.
“Jason Bourne” isn’t the best picture of the series—that remains the initial “Identity,” strongly directed by Doug Liman, though Greengrass’ sequels aren’t far behind. This latest episode doesn’t break much new ground in continuing Bourne’s story, but it’s a solid, reasonably exciting entry in the familiar saga.