There’s a moment in the new Bourne franchise movie when Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne looks soulfully into a bad guy’s eyes and says, “I’m trying to find another way.” Not very hard, unfortunately, as the plainly titled Jason Bourne offers only a plodding, sometimes downright laughable rehash of Bournes summer-movie past. Jason Bourne marks the fifth film in the franchise, the fourth for Damon, and the third for director Paul Greengrass. Though star and director had sworn off the franchise nine years ago. At the time, Damon said, “We have ridden that horse as far as we can,” and now he’s wishfully saying, “It won’t be said that we came to pick up a paycheck.” But it’s more or less clear that’s exactly why they came, plus a presumable contractual obligation for Universal Pictures to greenlight whatever films Damon and Greengrass would actually like to make.
The screenplay by Greengrass and his Oscar-winning editor Christopher Rouse teaches an object lesson in how franchise films become tiringly repetitive and devolve into sad self-parody. Audiences who check their brains at the auditorium door can take the ride and leave feeling only vaguely dissatisfied, but it only takes a moment of awareness to step outside the movie and see how poorly written, insultingly recycled, and anti-creative Jason Bourne is. (Don't even get me started on the climax's contrivances: an idiotic CIA assassination plot and Bourne stumbling on and impulse-shoplifting the gadgetry he needs.)
The film begins with a line from The Bourne Ultimatum: “I remember. I remember everything.” Except this time, Bourne—who’s been underground fighting in Greece since then—gets reminded of his daddy issue, which gets worse when he realizes his dad’s fiery death wasn’t a terrorist attack but a government-sanctioned rubout. But why? Well, you’ll never guess: it has something to do with Treadstone, the CIA black-ops super-soldier program that made Bourne the killing machine he is today. Bourne discovers he volunteered because of a lie, and he ain’t happy about it.
The new story handles this new motivation for revenge in every old way (including, yep, overwrought shaky-cam). Julia Stiles’ Nicky Parsons returns for an early action sequence, only to be insultingly replaced by a younger model: Alicia Vikander’s Agent Heather Lee. As always, a craggy CIA Director (this time, Tommy Lee Jones’s Robert Dewey) insists Bourne “has to be put down,” while his female protégé sees potential to bring Bourne in from the cold. As always, Bourne gets tracked from busy CIA control rooms, which deploy strike teams and a pissed-off assassin (this time, Vincent Cassel) for long sequences of looking through long-range rifle scopes, tailing, and chasing. As always, there’s a new secret program on the list, in this case “Iron Hand. It’s even worse than before.”
Yeah, it is even worse than before. The ostensible innovations of this entry include spackling on privacy-violating Silicon Valley (Riz Ahmed plays a CEO who lies, “When you use our service, no one will be watching”), a Julian Assange surrogate (Vinzenz Kiefer’s Christian Dussault) who can unaccountably hold his own with Bourne in a fistfight, helpful lines like “It could be worse than Snowden,” and a Greek anti-austerity riot. None of these specifics matter to the basic plot, which is about Bourne worming his way close enough to CIA agents to threaten or kill them (again) while eluding capture (again and again) to the anti-tune of John Powell and David Buckley’s anxious score (don’t catch yourself actually listening to the music: you’ll start laughing and disturb the other moviegoers).
Yeah, there are some impressive stunts—especially in the demolition-derby finale—and that’s supposed to be enough to justify two more hours of Bourne. Otherwise, Jason Bourne is Exhibit Z in the case against keeping franchises on life-support: it’s a film terrified to do anything different (which, believe it or not, would be entirely possible) and gamble with its $120-million-dollar-budget and billion-dollar brand. Albert Finney’s psychologist only appears in flashback and on paper, but his on-record comment says it all for the exhausted Bourne series: “When Bourne broke from the program...he left behind his reason to exist.”