A more appropriate title for Jason Bourne might be Walking: The Motion Picture. This fifth entry in the franchise loosely (very loosely) based on Robert Ludlum’s best-selling novels brings back director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon to continue the tale of the good soldier-turned-amnesiac-assassin-turned-rogue agent doing battle against his former overlords at the CIA. But mostly it’s about people walking. Walking down corridors, through hotels, through streets, through backrooms. Always briskly, always with apparent purpose, often with phones or earpieces or tracking devices so they can talk to someone else who is also walking and who is usually telling them where yet another person might be walking. Occasionally, they break into a run or get in a car and plow through traffic. But mostly, they just walk. Is the CIA now owned by Fitbit?
To be fair, there was walking in the other films, too — lots of it. But it wasn’t distracting, because those films each had an overall shape, an animating spirit, and sense of drive. Indeed, the Bourne movies have been among the more entertaining franchises Hollywood has turned out over the past couple of decades. The filmmaking (particularly in the two installments previously directed by Greengrass) was visceral, the stories offering just enough mystery to keep us watching. And Damon — who sat out the previous entry, The Bourne Legacy, which starred a capable but underwhelming Jeremy Renner — made for a likable blank slate: a guy with lethal instincts trying to piece together a monstrous past.
Jason Bourne goes over ground very similar to its predecessors, minus the poetic urgency of Bourne’s quest for self-discovery — a critical element. The first three Bournes portrayed his gradual realization that he was once a young soldier named David Webb — in this series, the hero himself was the MacGuffin — and then his efforts to expose the clandestine CIA super-assassin project that created him. When the new film opens, a forlorn Bourne is adrift on the Greece-Albania border, participating in underground bare-knuckle fights, presumably to pound away at his existential despair. Fellow renegade agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into a government computer and digs up a file suggesting that Webb’s father may have been involved with the program that took away the young man’s identity, and Bourne starts to recall a meeting he once had with his dad in Lebanon, which culminated in his old man’s death in a fiery explosion.
Bourne’s contact with Nicky also reveals his whereabouts to a CIA that still considers him a threat. Young operative Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) thinks she can bring him in and turn him, but gruff, corrupt new CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) wants him dead, turning to an assassin referred to as “The Asset” (a mostly silent Vincent Cassel) to find Bourne and do away with him. Dewey has his own reasons to be concerned: He’s got some kind of nefarious surveillance deal cooking with a hot new social-media company run by a charismatic young tech-bro named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), just the kind of thing Bourne has a history of uncovering.
Anyway, all these threads converge to form a narrative curiously devoid of suspense. Gone are the dribs and drabs of revelations about Bourne and the program that birthed him. The backstory about our hero’s father seems somewhat rote (any twists in it are either predictable or silly) and the conspiracy being unraveled, while topical — with its real-life nods to tech companies colluding with the government to compromise our privacy — feels curiously antiseptic.
The performances are competently unimpressive. Damon is always good at looking quizzical, and the earlier films used that quality to locate a quiet pathos in this otherwise badass character, a questioning vulnerability. Here he just seems puzzled and incurious. Vikander is reduced mostly to just staring at computers and yelling into phones and, yes, walking. (Her character is a computer-surveillance expert, so we get to see her do nifty stuff with facial-recognition software — but that doesn’t require much acting.) Ahmed is a bright spot; he nails the unassuming, performative chumminess of a millennial social-media prophet.
None of that might matter much if the various set pieces could match those of the previous Greengrass/Damon films. But Jason Bourne offers very little in the way of imaginative or innovative standoffs, confrontations or chases. Greengrass helped perfect (and maybe sometimes took too far) the shaky, handheld action style that dominated blockbusters for a few years; his action wasn’t always coherent, but it was always deeply involving — you could feel the bones crack and the cars crunch.
You’d think he could find something to do with such a physical and graceful actor as Cassel, but aside from a late-inning knife-and-cable-fight, the French star is given shockingly little to work with. Nothing here comes close to matching The Bourne Ultimatum’s immortal Paddington Station cellphone-and-sniper showdown, though one stunt involving Bourne falling off a building recalls that earlier film’s jumping-from-one-window-into-another-in-another-building eye-popper.
That’s the thing: Even when it comes to life, Jason Bourne offers very little that could stand on its own; its best scenes remind you of even better ones in the earlier films. There’s a greatest-hits quality to the movie, only the band is tired and its heart isn’t in it. It evokes a sense-memory of the prior films, and if you turn your mind off enough, you might convince yourself that you’re being treated to another action extravaganza along those lines. But really, all you’re left with is the spectacle of great actors walking around with little sense or conviction. The movie leaves you feeling both empty and exhausted.