All good things come to an end, and once they do, they’re usually better off left that way. So now we have “Jason Bourne,” a sequel to a franchise that didn’t need continuation. The first three chapters in the “Bourne” franchise were a rarity among modern American action movies: smart, fast and fun, they rarely wasted a frame — and best of all, they ended in peak form, with the relentless “The Bourne Ultimatum” in 2007. But the studio had other ideas, pressing ahead with another tale of a brainwashed government henchman rebelling against his overlords in “The Bourne Legacy” after Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass had their fill. Now Damon and Greengrass have been coaxed back to resuscitate the series’ appeal, but even they can’t seem to muster more than a shrug.
“Ultimatum” ended about as cleanly as this saga could: Bourne, a CIA assassin who goes rogue, figures out most of the details surrounding his past (including his real name, David Webb), confronts the murky government officials responsible for his lost years, and vanishes into anonymity. “Jason Bourne” finds a handy reason to rediscover the lost soul: The government wants him back. For much of “Jason Bourne,” he sees no reason to spend a moment’s notice entertaining this suggestion, and his evasiveness becomes a handy metaphor for the obvious disinterest by Damon and Greengrass in telling another “Bourne” story.
But there’s just enough speedy action showdowns and frantic, whispery exchanges to hint at the essence of “Bourne” DNA just beneath the surface. The magic is gone but not forgotten. Around every corner, one can find the prospects of an exciting chase scene or some tricky double-crossing, keeping hope alive that “Jason Bourne” could blossom into another great entry at any moment.
If that wasn’t enough to lure Bourne — now living in bland obscurity as a prize fighter — back to action, he also gets the chance to learn yet more about his past thanks to the ever-handy Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). Once a member of the ultra-secretive Operation Treadstone that recruited super-killers like Bourne, she has since turned into a cybertech rebel. As “Jason Bourne” begins, she goes full Edward Snowden by leaking government documents about Treadstone. These include details surrounding the death of Bourne’s father, who helped launch the government effort before rebelling against it.
Nicky’s decision to drop this bombshell irks dyspeptic CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who joins the time-honored tradition of corrupt government officials tracking Bourne’s movements through various remote cameras and barking orders at anonymous officials. His one potentially complicated partner-in-crime, youthful CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), has the unfortunate task of inhabiting Stiles’ old role now that her character has outgrown the part.
Heather’s hardly more than the suggestion of a character, but at least Vikander lands a few good scenes as she struggles with her allegiances. Jones doesn’t fare so well. Wearier than ever, his sleepy disposition embodies everything wrong with this half-hearted effort. “Jason Bourne is in play,” he tells a new hired gun (Vincent Cassel, utterly wasted), with such bland delivery it’s a wonder he doesn’t roll his eyes in the process.
“Jason Bourne” melts into the usual Greengrass routine of shaky-cam visuals that shift between icy control rooms and crowded areas, with Bourne continually evading capture. While Greengrass’ decision to co-write the movie with editor Christopher Rouse (who won an Oscar for “Ultimatum”) is intriguing in theory, “Jason Bourne” adheres to an existing format so robotically that it never manages to surprise or engage for longer than the occasional passing moment.
All the usual pieces are there. Thundering, indistinct music keeps building to swift climaxes; moving digital maps bleed and bloop to track Bourne’s movements. And while the “Bourne” movies favor expert timing over plot, in this case the rhythms of the action simply overemphasize the same beats: Over here, a SWAT vehicle slamming through one car after another — and then a building! Over there, a knife fight that suddenly get wilder when one man wields — a whip! Bourne flies off a motorcyle and slams into a building, then later careens over a roof, hits another building, and once again lies on the floor just long enough to look like he’s had enough before he’s off again. It keeps on moving along, with the occasional chuckle-worthy cutaway, but there’s nothing distinct about this particular ride.
Thematically, “Jason Bourne” doesn’t fare much better. While Greengrass borrowed enough plot from Robert Ludlum’s original novels to turn the latter two official “Bourne” movies into wry comments on homeland security, “Jason Bourne” is a blunt retread. The earlier entries anticipated the Snowden era with their depiction of complex and ethically dubious surveillance systems; this one name-checks him. Meanwhile, a billionaire social network founder (Riz Ahmed) struggles with the CIA’s efforts to make him comply with their requests. There’s a touch of Greengrass’ wry, subversive political agenda to the way the movie unapologetically casts the FBI as merciless villains, but their motivations are as mechanical as the filmmaking.
Some of the best action movies treasure images and motion above all else. Last year’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” joined the ranks of “Ultimatum” in this noble task, which gets at the essence of what moving images can do on their own terms. But “Jason Bourne” doesn’t engage those terms so much as it simply regurgitates them. As Bourne gears up for more action, someone actually tells him, “You don’t have to do this.” She speaks for those of us already pleased with his decision to go missing in action. No matter how much we enjoy watching them, some heroes deserve to finish their work.
“Jason Bourne” opens nationwide on July 29.