The only thing that moves around more than Matt Damon’s super-spy Jason Bourne is Paul Greengrass’s camera. That makes them a rather magnificent match, so the actor/director team’s first collaboration in nearly a decade is, naturally, stuffed with movement. Even when the movie is focused on CIA employees fiddling with computers, as it often is, Greengrass fills the screen with constant calamity. But when it comes time to hurl his movie headfirst into raucous action, well, it’s best to get out of the way.
Greengrass orchestrates the movie’s complex chases as if he eats chaos for breakfast. He’s in complete control of an astonishing amount of activity and yet, um, how? An early sequence set in Athens that has Bourne looking to meet up with an old pal in the midst of a tension-boiling riot is arguably the most ambitious set piece of the summer, scintillating street-level shenanigans captured at something close to light speed.
Bourne kicks, punches, and jumps astride a motorcycle to roar furiously through bustling streets lit by flames from molotov cocktails and claustrophobically crammed with extras playing warring armies of cops and protestors that force our hero to continually weave through the crowd and use their actions to his advantage.
It must have been a logistical nightmare to pull off, a choreographically impossible mission to burn a blast of adrenaline directly into our eyeballs that feels positively rebellious in today’s set piece landscape of total green screen trickery. But there it is on the big screen, unfolding with all of the visual and aural ferocity that a nerve-jangling Greengrass can muster.
This fifth Bourne pic (Damon’s fourth, Greengrass’s third) could just end right then and there and be a satisfying follow-up, but it powers forward with the familiar formula of our hero on the run from itchy agency officials trying to hide what shreds of truth they have left to bury. There shouldn’t be much story left to tell at this point and perhaps in some ways there isn’t, but the screenplay by Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse justifies another go-round by tackling topical issues like Internet privacy and how it butts up against national security.
The titular hero has to uncover another piece of the puzzle that is his past, which at this point should be maddeningly dull, but the reveal has such personal meaning for Bourne that it’s actually quite interesting, possibly even moving. More than ever before in this franchise, this latest effort stresses that while Jason Bourne may be nearing physical invincibility, he has an emotional vulnerability that ratchets up the dramatic stakes.
Some of the new info surrounding the hero's past is simply used to push an unnamed CIA-hired assassin (Vincent Cassel) further into his villain role so Bourne has someone who can actually force him to break a sweat. Cassel almost always plays a villain, so his casting is a bit uninspired, but he fits the part of a cool and collected killer nonetheless. Besides, the more interesting villains in this series have always been the ones crunching data instead of crushing windpipes. Cassel is there to aid in the thrills when needed while the rest of the movie lurks in murkier territory as CIA bigwigs try to figure out what Bourne is doing and what to do with him.
Much of the movie involves agency workers staring at monitors and tapping at keyboards as they access all modes of surveillance material, which would be epically boring if Greengrass didn't treat it with the same immediacy and intensity as he does all the big set pieces. It helps that he's added Alicia Vikander to the cast as the head of the CIA's cyber operations division.
Vikander is fast becoming an actress who can do a lot with a little and so her performance expertly captures the tension and excitement of the moment even though the seriousness of the situation and Greengrass's treatment of it keeps her wearing a single expression the whole time. She's all steely resolve, holding her own against craggy boss and towering veteran Tommy Lee Jones, who also goes the extra mile and delivers his lines with genuine dramatic weight instead of the phoned-in, paycheque-grabbing drawl so many actors of his stature and age opt for nowadays.
Filling thin roles with great actors is nothing new to this franchise, but that doesn’t make the casting and the performances any less appreciated this time around. Vikander sells every moment she’s onscreen and that opportunity to suspend disbelief by completely believing in the characters is a true treat in a summertime blockbuster.
Damon slips back into his role as effortlessly now, a near decade later, as he did back when he was pounding these movies out every three years. Bourne is more a man of action than dialogue, so even though Damon is a master of cool charm, he’s also incredibly adept at replacing that inherent likability with a strong stoicism that allows him to achieve iconic superhero status. Damon’s talent comes especially into play in these action-packed extravaganzas because he’s capable of humanizing a character who risks coming off as robotic.
Greengrass has always approached this series as an opportunity to inject high-octane cinematic thrills with a dose of gritty realism and Jason Bourne represents the most extreme version of this pop procedure. It’s certainly a more grounded thrill ride than most at the multiplexes nowadays because Greengrass opts for real locations and a cache of practical stunts so huge they fill a large portion of the Vegas strip, but the action is also pushing at the boundaries of what can be considered remotely sensible.
The joy of Greengrass’s skill is that he uses these seemingly opposing forces to balance and fuel the excitement, so both the grounded and the heightened become stronger and more impactful because of the other. This is the key to the filmmaker’s shaky yet confident command of the modern action sequence. Well, that and his refusal to ever stop to catch his breath.