The spy film is generally a springboard for a rugged male operative to happily immerse himself in whatever maelstrom of action, violence, duplicity, sex, and general mayhem has been stirred up for him by his masters. The silver standard is the best of the James Bond movies — but we hardly think of Bond as a grubby bureaucrat who, after taking down some world menace and saving Britain, goes home to his suburban burrow to await further orders.
Indeed, Bond — it’s in the books — is an alcoholic murderer and sex addict, who, if at home, probably spends his time staring at porn. Of late Daniel Craig has sought to break free of the original colonial rigmarole; but, somehow, it doesn’t always work since cybercrime and universal surveillance have overtaken a Brit snob who knows his wine. Goodbye Spectre, hello targeted drones.
Jason Bourne’s initials are the same as Bond’s, as one observer has crucially noted — he’s an American fist-fighter compared to one swilling G&T at The Club. Bourne is moodier, almost psychotic, suffering from a form of amnesia that set in after his brutal stint at a would-be fuehrer-class the CIA was creating. This was a genuine black-ops operation in which all the members were agents of death.
The franchise kicked off with The Bourne Legacy in 2002 with Bourne found floating in the Mediterranean with a wiped mind. Jason Bourne is the fifth in the franchise based on the late writer Robert Ludlum’s airport time-wasters, but which sees the return of Bourne, gone rogue and living off-grid. His besetting symptom: is he really a patriotic brainwashed American soldier with deadly skills? To what wicked purpose was he put?
He discovers most of the truth in this film; and also that his idea of America has been savagely distorted while he has been in hiding for 10 years. The world is now one of whistleblowers (Snowden is mentioned) and Isis, and the inner cadre in the CIA still wants to kill him since he carries secrets best unheard. The media wait to pounce ... In short, this is our everyday slough of despond, with some opinionistas babbling of civil war, a new Cold War — or Armageddon.
But the physical combat and crashing cars are there — Jason Bourne is more interested in smashing someone’s head in than didactic analysis of the signs of the times. The influence of the Fast & Furious franchise is everywhere. The fury unleashed by Greengrass’s style of swoops from one world city to another, satellite observations keeping track of Bourne and his nemesis, Asset (Cassel), a thug on the side of the "good guys" who plan on hooking up with a social media billionaire (Ahmed) who falsely promises his e-slaves that their private information will be kept private (another familiar lie).
But who precisely are the "good guys"? The twisted, vile CIA schemer (Jones) is a fascist on the scout for total domination of the US and its allies and works well with a reincarnation of the classic femme fatale (Vikander), whose tasks include seducing Bourne to bring him back "on side" until his secrets have been extracted.
This treads lightly on Bourne’s love life, which scarcely exists. Vikander is soon dumped for the hustler she is; and Bourne’s main companion Nicky (Stiles), who shares his agony at what the CIA subversives are about, is quickly killed. Romance is not a big deal.
The overall impact is brassy and loud, but Damon/Bourne carries the sequential spectacular, and we are on his side. The portrait of America as rotten and corrupt is what, it seems, we take for granted now. Are there any good guys left?
Directed by Paul Greengrass; co-written by Greengrass
Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed