This fifth entry in the Bourne series – which puts it level with You Only Live Twice, Live Free or Die Hard or Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in their respective canons – breaks with the title format of Robert Ludlum’s long-since-left-behind original novels by not being called The Bourne Something. In this, it’s on a par with such other back-to-basics series reboots as Jack Ryan and Rocky Balboa – Ludlum’s rogue brainwashed CIA hit-man Bourne is such a dark doppelganger of Tom Clancy’s staunch patriotic CIA analyst Ryan, it’d be cool if the rights could be sorted out for the ideological free-for-all of Bourne vs Ryan. The template was set by Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002), with Matt Damon taking a role first played by Richard Chamberlain in a 1988 TV version … but the series only began to show legs when Paul Greengrass teamed with Damon for a couple of hyperactive sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Unable to let a franchise rest, Universal let Damon and Greengrass lapse and brought in Jeremy Renner and Tony Gilroy for the sidetrack of The Bourne Legacy … but have scotched that track for the moment by bringing reliables Damon and Greengrass back, with the possibility that Renner’s character will show up in inevitable further installments.
All this activity disguises the fact that ever since the first sequel, the series has had a major problem coming up with fresh plots. The Bourne Identity has a good mystery (an amnesiac wonders where he got his spycrafty skills) which is resolved satisfactorily, and despite further revelations of CIA perfidy in subsequent films, the sequels have just filled in the blanks of the process whereby nobody David Webb was turned into an only-slightly-more-believable version of Wolverine between retreads of the same old plotline (nasty CIA bosses try to kill Bourne but nicer agents try to help him) and bursts of terrific action. Everything in this new movie has been done before, though new baddies – a senior spook (Tommy Lee Jones) and a murderous ‘asset’ (Vincent Cassell) – replace suits offed in earlier entries, lone supporting holdover Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) tries to keep the tired reveals coming (this time, Webb-Bourne learns who killed his father and why) and a pursed-lips up-and-comer (Alicia Vikander, less fun here than in The Man From UNCLE) puts out feelers to become the hero’s new inside ally at the Agency. It’s rather a humourless franchise, especially since the cast lost the sole ordinary person viewpoint with the death of Franka Potente’s character several films back – but the repetitions are starting to become funny. Clearly, no one should ever take a meeting in a public place with Jason Bourne since that renders them as instantly doomed as being a hero cop’s partner with a happy family or a babysitter who has sex on Halloween. And no one ever notices a mobile phone-shaped tracking device slipped into their pockets.
When we meet Webb/Bourne, he’s bare-knuckles fighting to show off his prowess – much as Rambo was in Rambo III – but the mention of his Dad (briefly seen Gregg Henry) gets him back into action. Here, action means running and fighting through crowds with deadly ops on his tail – and major set-pieces take place during a topical riot in Athens, a canalside stroll in London and a tech convention in Las Vegas. Greengrass and Christopher Rouse provide a script that namedrops Edward Snowden and allegorises the dispute with Apple over privacy settings – but the mcguffin is the same universal surveillance gizmo last deployed in Criminal and the office politics are getting musty. What Bourne, as a franchise and as a character, does well is fighting and chasing – though even this is getting repetitive. A crunching car chase in Vegas is fine, but not upto the Russian-set climax of Supremacy … and Damon’s dour nobody of a protagonist becomes less interesting the more he is explained, as if the manufactured identity of Jason Bourne were fading away to give us an action series built around the much more lumpen David Webb.