Note to Hollywood: July 4th was weeks ago, so screw you for making us wait so long for the real-deal action-movie fireworks. They show up big time in Jason Bourne, that rare summer thrill ride that doesn’t sell out to stupid. After nine years, Matt Damon returns to the role of the amnesiac assassin that made him an icon in 2002’s The Bourne Identity, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum. Damon and Paul Greengrass, who directed the hell out of the last two Bourne epics — not including the 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, which both wisely skipped — didn’t want to commit till they had a screenplay. The filmmaker and editor Christopher Rouse did the honors, with a script that spoke truth to the power of right–this-effing minute. And though Damon has barely 25 lines of dialogue (Bourne is a force in perpetual motion), the movie says a mouthful about cyber terrorism and the easily-crossed line between public safety and personal privacy.
To catch up: Bourne has most of his memory back, but lacks info on the CIA program that ended with the murder of his father. Guilt eats at him for what he did as a government-built, $100 million killing machine. He picks up bare-knuckle fights to punish and be punished. But during an austerity riot in Greece, Bourne is contacted by former colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) and learns that new CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones at his devilish best) is building his own shadow government with the help of compromised tech kingpin Aaron Kalloor (a terrific Riz Ahmed of HBO’s The Night of). The result could be something “worse than Snowden.”
As Bourne trots the globe — Athens, Berlin, London, Vegas — he’s tracked by Dewey’s lieutenant, Heather Lee (a stellar Alicia Vikander), and an assassin known only as the Asset (Vincent Cassel). Miraculously, Greengrass and his ace cinematographer Barry Aykroyd (The Hurt Locker) build a slam-bang spy game that plays like a you-are-there documentary. The jittery hand-held cameras shatter your nerves, and the truly special effects are mostly practical, not CGI. From Athens to a climactic car chase on the Vegas strip, the film offers the glorious sight of stunt work at its most palpably exciting.
All this may seem achingly familiar to those who’ve seen the other Bourne movies. For me, drowning in the pixelated muddle of most summer movies (Warcraft marking the lowest point), the realism is a distinct pleasure. Greengrass doesn’t stoop to hollow digital dazzle to jazz an audience. Long, fluid takes emphasize action that reveals character. Through it all, Damon keeps us glued to the war going on inside Bourne’s head. It’s a brilliantly implosive performance; he owns the role and the movie. It’s a tense, twisty mindbender anchored by something no computer can generate: soul.