The new film Jason Bourne reunites Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass after nearly a decade – but can they recreate the old magic? Nicholas Barber finds out.

Break out the ‘Bourne again’ headlines: nearly a decade on from The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon and writer-director Paul Greengrass have reunited for Jason Bourne, another propulsive yarn about the CIA’s memory-impaired rogue super-spy. The character was born in a Robert Ludlum novel, and his big-screen debut, The Bourne Identity, was directed by Doug Liman, but the series is now associated so closely with Damon and Greengrass that if someone else makes a Bourne film - eg, The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner - it feels like a karaoke version of a classic song. Jason Bourne, on the other hand, is the sound of the band getting back together.

Since we last saw him, Bourne has been living off the grid as a bare-knuckle boxer. It’s disappointing that he hasn’t made more productive use of his phenomenal skills, but the idea is that he was traumatised by his time as a brainwashed black-ops killer. The fact that the viewer gets to see an alarmingly muscular Damon with his top off is, I’m sure, an unintended bonus.

At any rate, Bourne’s anonymous existence is interrupted when his old CIA buddy Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) tracks him down to share some new information about his murky past. Bourne is intrigued enough to investigate further, but his enquiries upset the CIA’s director (Tommy Lee Jones, providing the air of elder-statesman gravitas and deviousness that Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn and Albert Finney brought to prior instalments). He believes that Bourne should be dispatched by an assassin known only as The Asset (Vincent Cassel, who is an asset indeed), whereas his shrewd lieutenant (Alicia Vikander) argues that Bourne can be persuaded to rejoin the Agency.

No one else can construct a fight sequence that is so head-spinningly fast, but which is also possible to follow

It’s just like old times. Once again, Bourne hurtles from one grey and gritty European metropolis to another at breathtaking speed. Once again, he is never more than half-a-step ahead of his enemies. And once again, Greengrass stages the action with bone-jarring immediacy, using wobbly handheld cameras and rat-a-tat editing to make the viewer feel as if they could be hit by a stray fist or bullet at any moment. Greengrass’s hectic, immersive style has been much imitated since The Bourne Supremacy rewrote the rules of the secret-agent genre in 2004, but no one else has his ability to construct a fight sequence that is so head-spinningly fast and fragmentary, but which is also possible to follow.

Just to show the copycats how it’s done, he puts the film’s first extended set piece in the middle of an anti-government demonstration in Athens - and the confidence with which he orchestrates the chaos is astounding. Once you’ve seen Bourne barrelling through crowds of protesters and riot police in a city choked by smoke and tear gas, you’ll never be able to rewatch 007’s daft car chase in Spectre, through a conveniently deserted Rome, without smirking.

Bourne, Jason Bourne

But even when Jason Bourne has you on the edge of your seat, it’s still hard to shake the feeling that it isn’t as satisfying as the earlier films. Partly, it’s a simple matter of the law of diminishing returns. Greengrass and Damon (and, to a lesser extent, Liman), have done a positively scientific job of refining the Bourne-movie formula. They know exactly which elements it has to have in order to distinguish it from every other espionage thriller on the market. The downside of this precision, though, is that they haven’t left themselves much room for manoeuvre.

It’s not as if they can let Bourne ski-jump off a cliff, or hop on a space shuttle, or acquire a taste for vodka Martinis and risque one-liners. They can’t let him do anything that he didn’t do in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum - and there’s no way he can it any more electrifyingly than he did in those. After two films which deserved to have “supreme” and “ultimate” in their titles - more or less - any follow-up will inevitably seem like a slightly less impressive retread of what we’ve seen before. 

Perhaps the film should have been called “Chasin’ Bourne” instead

Sometimes, the repetition makes you roll your eyes. Isn’t it ridiculous, for instance, that the CIA is still hunting down Bourne, a task they first had a crack at in The Bourne Identity 14 years ago? Considering how much money, man-power and futuristic technology they have at their disposal in the film, you’d think they would have caught him by now - and yet here they are spending a fortune and mowing down countless innocent bystanders in the attempt. What a palaver. Wouldn’t it make more sense if they concentrated on catching terrorists instead?

But the problems with Jason Bourne aren’t all to do with familiarity breeding contempt. There are a few other off-key notes which suggest that, having reunited, the band isn’t quite playing in tune. For one thing, Greengrass resorts to more spy-movie hokum than he used to: more jargon, more absurdly quick computer uploads, more scenes in which someone looks at a photo on a screen, and barks, “enhance!” and the blurry picture magically comes into pin-sharp focus.

For another thing, it seems as if Greengrass is trying to make two films at once. One of them is about Bourne and his identity, just as the previous ones were. But the other is about a high-tech cyber-conspiracy which has nothing to do with him. It’s strange that Jason Bourne should have that full name as its title, because Bourne himself is almost a supporting character, with less screen time, less depth, and less dialogue than ever. Perhaps the film should have been called “Chasin’ Bourne” instead.

The non-Bourne plot concerns the CIA’s shady dealings with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) whose social networking service is more popular than Facebook, Instagram and Twitter put together. Inspired by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, it’s a storyline that’s turned up in too many films already. After all, the villain’s scheme involves “full-spectrum surveillance - watching everyone, all the time.” But wasn’t that what Blofeld had planned in Spectre? You know something’s wrong with a Bourne film when it lags a year behind Bond.

★★★☆☆

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