'Jason Bourne' review: Best of Bourne rather than Bourne at its best

Like a greatest hits tour, Matt Damon's return to the Bourne series slickly repackages its own history (spoiler-free review).

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

If, like amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, you're fished out of the sea with two bullets in your back and no memory of the past, it won't affect your enjoyment of this action sequel. In fact, given how liberally "Jason Bourne" borrows from its own past, you might actually enjoy it more.

Matt Damon is back as the titular action hero, whose special powers include beating people up in confined spaces and walking through crowds really fast. The unflappable Bourne, a visibly aged shell of his former self, is running solely on muscle memory in underground bare knuckle fights, flooring opponents with a single punch and without a flicker of emotion. This time round he's sucked into a conspiracy involving a Zuckerberg-esque Silicon Valley peon, played by Riz Ahmed, whose wildly popular online company Deep Dream is secretly in bed with the CIA. Topical!

That flicker of modernity aside, the film sticks to the "Bourne" format. Once again our hero discovers a black ops programme with an enigmatic codename. Once again he argues with a spy chief with a dirty secret (in this case, Tommy Lee Jones). Once again he is hunted by an implacable assassin who is, in many ways, a mirror to Bourne himself (Vincent Cassel). And once again he is helped and hindered by an insider questioning her morals (Alicia Vikander). What's more, "Jason Bourne" also shamelessly re-uses scenes, action beats and supposed shock twists from previous films in the series.

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So it's familiar -- but it's also really, really well done. In the hands of director Paul Greengrass, "Jason Bourne" feels not like a rehash of past glories but like a Greatest Hits arena tour. The hairline may be receding, but the hits are as solid as ever when dialled up to 11. It's the best of Bourne, only bigger.

Still, there are whole stretches of the film where all the histrionics -- namely director Paul Greengrass' signature jittery camera and whiplash editing -- are desperately trying to cover up the fact nothing much is actually happening. Between the mayhem of the early riot sequence and the bludgeoning climax, the second act is basically people frowning at computer screens.

And the walking -- oh god, the walking. There's a whole action sequence that's just three sets of people walking quickly around London, frowning. Cassel in particular spends so much time walking through doors, up stairs and down corridors (while frowning), someone should tell him he'd have time to pop twice as many fools if he just got dropped off a bit closer.

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You would not believe how much of this there is.

Jasin Boland

Ultimately it's hard to shake the nagging feeling this latest Bourne movie is a victim of its own success. Not only does it cannibalise its own past, the new film also echoes other action movies that reinvented themselves after the innovative feel of "The Bourne Identity" in 2002.

So "Jason Bourne"'s big chase is directly lifted from "A Good Day to Die Hard" (AKA "The Worst Die Hard"). It's shot in London and Berlin, because apparently it's the law these days that all blockbusters have to film in London and Berlin ("Thor 2", "London has Fallen", "Fast and Furious 6", "The Hunger Games", "Captain America: Civil War" etc). And there's a subplot about government surveillance, because apparently it's also the law these days that all blockbusters have a subplot about government surveillance ("Spectre", "Furious 7", "Captain America" again).

Still, "Jason Bourne" is a solid action blockbuster put together by experts in the field. It's just not as memorable as Bourne's best.

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