I’m put in mind of tea leaves. Good quality tea leaves that have rendered such a wonderful cup of tea that you wonder if maybe, just maybe, there’s enough of their essential, unique quality left to take one more infusion to make a cup as good as that first one. And so it is with JASON BOURNE, a character created by Robert Ludlum who has stood up to several incarnations, before settling on Matt Damon as the chief interpreter of the unstoppable rogue CIA agent. He has taken the series in truly diverting directions while at the helm as a stone-cold killing machine with a boyish face and a late-stage case of conscience. The latest, eponymously titled chapter was not based on a Ludlum novel, and its exertions rarely rise above a series of hackneyed tropes and painful clichés before pulling itself together in the last 15 minutes or so.
We find our boy in Greece, taking out a formidable opponent with one punch in an impromptu boxing match. He’s robotic with whiff of weltschmerz to go with those scars. There is a good reason, plot-wise, that we are being shown this. It’s a frame of reference when Bourne will face-off, the inevitable face-off, with his arch enemy played by Vincent Cassal, playing a character known only as The Asset. Cassal, a character actor of infinite delights, particularly in the role of a villain, is the CIA hitman who will spend much of the film chasing Bourne in order to clean up the mess he’s made for CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Dewey is still smarting from the pickle Bourne got him into with Congress by exposing a Black Ops operation. Dewey, being Dewey, has another one going, and thanks for Bourne’s old ally, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), he’s about to be plunged into the brine again. Which leads one to wonder why he doesn’t get a more capable hitman after The Asset makes a habit of muffing things up.
Thus do our characters zip around several European locales to meet up in order to make plans on where to meet up next. It’s just one of the things wrong with the plot of JASON BOURNE, though, if you try, you can sort of make sense of them. For instance, why wouldn’t Parsons give Bourne the information he needs the first time they meet up in Athens? Because to do so would render the fiery chase through the rioting streets of Athens unnecessary. And why would the CIA want to be so publicly associated with a Silicon Valley honcho (Riz Ahmed) running the latest and greatest social media interface? Why does the difference in time zones between Langley, VA and Berlin, Germany violate the time/space continuum? And why would you hire an actress of Alicia Vikander’s caliber only to have her spend 90 percent of her screen time staring at a computer? Granted, Ms Vikander can look both interesting and interested while doing so, but not even she can rescue those clunky scenes of egregious exposition delivered by grim faces with tight lips. Never mind that as the head of cybersecurity at the Agency, it makes little sense that she wouldn’t be able to look this information up on her own, and look both interesting and interested while doing so.
To make things seem more exciting than they are, a hand-held camera jitters us through the action sequences. Kinetic, yes, but the lack of imagination used in staging them does not allow such stylistic tricks to work the necessary magic. Neither does Jones barking orders as though he has just woken up from a nap. The mystery of how Bourne’s father figured into his son’s Agency recruitment shows a similar lack of imagination. The predictability throughout is crushing. Props to Damon for committing so completely to the role, including sculpting his body into the requisite superhero physique.
JASON BOURNE is a letdown despite a valuable lesson in the dangers of driving angry taught by a not entirely unthrilling chase along the Vegas Strip. But even that is troubling for the damage done to innocent bystanders in varying degrees from being roughly pushed aside to being squished into hash by the protagonists out to even scores old and new. Gamely trying for relevance by riding the current fashion for commenting on cyber privacy and pandering to our paranoia about digital surveillance, it can’t disguise what it is: a pale reflection of something that was once great.