Jason Bourne has everything you expect: hackers pounding on computers, secret files helpfully labeled “Black Operations,” blunt commands barked into phones, people sprinting with earpieces, and waiters who don't bother taking drink orders when two suits sit down at a café because they'll be storming out in seconds. But it continues to lack something important: a personality. Bourne never had one. He's as gray and snub-nosed and straightforward as a bullet. If his former self, David Webb, was cool, he's long since forgotten.
Four certified flicks into the franchise (five if you insist on counting Jeremy Renner's The Bourne Legacy, filmed when Damon temporarily quit), it's time for Bourne apologists who cite his brainwashing as an excuse to ask themselves if that script choice is worth the monotony. Bourne never smiles and barely talks. Despite being the most hunted man on the planet, he won't bother disguising himself with a more interesting persona. He's as dull and mute posing as Russian bare-knuckled boxer as he is posing as a Vegas tech bro. Dude, you'd hide better with a dumb shirt and yardstick margarita. Even Christian Bale's glum Bruce Wayne partied, once.
“I remember everything,” says Bourne at the start of the film. Specifically, the 32 people the government made him kill as their hypnotized assassin. Their deaths scroll past in a streaky white montage — what, are their ghosts standing in front of the lens?
The bigger question is: Did they deserve it? According to CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), Bourne's murders protected America, but then Bourne went and betrayed global security. A sniper called The Asset (Vincent Cassel) agrees: When Bourne and insider Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) uploaded the agency's secrets to the internet, Syrians were able to kidnap The Asset and torture him for two years. Our hero Bourne is to blame for his scars, and the cyclical debate of who wronged whom would be interesting if the script actually bothered to engage with it. They're both wrong, and their centerpiece fight takes place exactly where it should: a sewer.
Jason Bourne's timing is so perfect, it's terrible. The film's waffling indecision about cyber leaks arrives in theaters exactly a week after Russians spilled the DNC's emails. It plunges Bourne and Nicky into the middle of a violent Greek uprising as though Molotov cocktail–throwing revolutions are just neato set dressing. It name-checks Edward Snowden, has operatives blame hits on false-flag fake terrorists, and enlists a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in (Nightcrawler's Riz Ahmed) in the fight for internet privacy.
These choices aren't smart — they're shrewd. Canny films acknowledge reality; intelligent films analyze it. By the time The Asset mows down Las Vegas bystanders with a SWAT van — shades of Nice near the Paris casino — director Paul Greengrass's refusal to tangle with any of the true-life topics he's borrowing for gravitas leaves us feeling as cold as the car chase itself, which is a choppy mess with no sense of space or suspense.
Sidenote: All hail Greengrass for cutting back on the shaky cam. He's still going handheld, but now the cinematographers are more into panning and pacing. The movement is so restless that you'd think he hired a fleet of granny mall-walkers jolted with mochaccinos. I've rarely seen so much effort for so little thrill.
But here's the irony: Jason Bourne is at its best when its main character isn't in it. Jones's Dewey, who seems to have layered on extra eye bags, has a light-handed lilt that breaks up the tedium, and his inner-office politics are more interesting than a dozen gunfights. He tolerates millennial computer analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander, drained of charm) telling him how to do his job, but behind her back, he still calls her “the girl.” After two hours of empty smashing, Heather is perfectly positioned for future Bourne sequels, which makes sense, since she doesn't have a personality, either. What's her excuse?