“Jason Bourne is in play,” someone barks early on in Jason Bourne. Upon hearing these words, it will take all of your willpower to not mutter “Well, oooobviously” right back at the screen. Ever since 2002’s The Bourne Identity, which opened with Matt Damon’s amnesia-plagued operative floating in the Mediterranean Sea, Bourne has forever been on the go, his life spent running, driving, and window-jumping his way across Europe, using any weapon he can find to get from one skirmish to the next. The joys of the first three Damon-led Bourne films–which also include 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum–are watching their titular character slowly put together the far-flung puzzle pieces of his former life, only to realize that each new truth also yields another mystery. For Bourne, there’s no real closure; there’s only endless closing-in. He’ll always be in play, as will the question he’s been trying to answer for more than 15 years: Who am I?
That quest gets nudged forward just a bit in Jason Bourne, Damon’s first crack at the character in nearly a decade, and a movie that absolutely did not need to be made: After all, Ultimatum wrapped up with our hero as close to the truth as he was ever going to be, having finally gotten some comeuppance against the CIA bureaucrats who turned him into a killing machine–and then plunging into the East River, alive and kicking. It was a fittingly cryptic send-off, and Damon and director Paul Greengrass were going to need a good reason to bring Jason Bourne out of hiding after all these years.
They didn’t quite find one, and instead have ended up hyper-linking together a series of modern-world problems that tend to keep Bourne’s own story on the back-burner. As a result, Jason Bourne lacks the identity-crisis intrigue of its predecessors. But there is a genuine, seat-gripping thrill to watching Damon once again out-fight and out-smart his opponents, which here include glower-powered bureaucrats, over-passionate assassins, and a few mega-ripped Serbs. In a summer in which big-studio filmmaking has hit a new, once-unimaginable nadir, Jason Bourne has more than enough car-fights and hot-pursuit chase scenes to make up for its buffet-style narrative. Much like Jason Bourne himself, it gets the job done.
The movie opens with its underground hero brawling for bucks on the Greece-Albania border, which, judging by the pumped-up and carb-starved physiques of Bourne and his opponents, must be where the world’s supply of Creatine is harvested. He’s soon contacted by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a fellow ex-CIA grunt (and, it’s always been hinted, a possible former love) who’s hacked into the agency’s computers, stealing information on various top-secret programs with the intention of exposing them to the world. Among the leaks may be some crucial–and, it turns out, somewhat unpleasant–information about Bourne’s father, a former agency bigwig. (By the way, if you’re looking for any plot-nods to Jeremy Renner’s character from 2012’s spin-off The Bourne Legacy, he’s clearly been relegated to a backroom somewhere in the Pentagon, looking for chems-trails.)
What the reunited Bourne and Parsons don’t realize, though, is that they’re already back on the radar of the CIA, led by senior official Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, adding his sourpuss gravitas to what is already the frowniest franchise in modern history) and upstart Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). Dewey wants Bourne out of the picture permanently, while Lee favors a soft-power negotiation to bring him back into the fold. Either way, they won’t find their target easily: Within minutes of reuniting with Nicky, she and Bourne are in Greece, where riots are in full effect, and where Bourne throttles a stolen motorcycle through back-alleys and side streets, as Molotov cocktails and set-aflame couches crash all around him. It’s a happily amped-up sequence, full of swerves and near-misses, and heightened by the fact that an agent with a vendetta against Bourne (played by Vincent Cassel, and referred to only as “Asset”) is also giving chase, trying to mow Bourne down.
After yet another close-call escape, Bourne crosses one border after another, from Berlin to London to Las Vegas, as he tries to unravel the mystery of Iron Hand, the latest Bourne-series CIA program with a wonderfully, randomly goony name (past entries include Treadstone, Blackbriar, and Thorabirch). But Jason Bourne also makes a crucial detour to Silicon Valley. That’s the home of Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the founder of a social-media dynamo called Deep Dream–we don’t exactly know what it does, but it does somehow boast 1.5 billion users–who’s trying to back out of an information-sharing scheme he worked out with the CIA. One of the secret pleasures of the Bourne films is their keen interest in the over-oiled machinations of diplomacy–the way every cordial chat is a secret battle, and every good-natured gesture a Trojan horse. Watching Jason Bourne’s various dot-com power-brokers and Beltway middle-managers charmingly screw each other is good fun, especially when Jones, in full jowl-scowl mode, starts making some deadly, Parallax View-like power-plays (Dewey cheats ’em–and how!).
Still, all that leaking and hacking and double-crossing doesn’t have a lot to do with Jason Bourne (though we do get some more intel on his family history). And there are times when it feels like his character simply barreled in from a different movie altogether. But Jason Bourne is, above everything else, a perpetual motion machine, one greatly assisted by Damon’s spring-action physicality and steady stares–this is a guy with zero post-kill bon mots–and by Greengrass’ audacious action scenes, with all of their whosit-on-the-what-now? shaky-cam disorientation. The movie ends with a car chase through Las Vegas that’s so protracted and overcooked, it’s hard not to imagine it as Greengrass’ and Damon’s carnage-filled reclamation–a way to once again prove their mettle to the stars and directors who’ve come to define the action genre during their Bourne hiatus.
Whether or you’ll enjoy such spectacle-focused bravado depends on what you’re looking for in a 2016 Jason Bourne movie: As an entry in one of the greatest action-film franchises of all time, Jason Bourne is an occasionally spectacular, mostly satisfying-enough reminder of what came before. But on its own–as a fast-moving, quick-on-its-feet global-political caper–Jason Bourne offers an invaluable reprieve from what’s proved to be miserable summer, both in and out of movie theaters. Just don’t be surprised if you wind up with your own blurry memory of it a few days after walking out of the theater.