Jason Bourne is the latest in the film series based on the Robert Ludlum spy novels, and this fifth installment marks the return of Matt Damon, after Jeremy Renner stepped in for The Bourne Legacy in 2012. According to the website Cinema Blend, Damon agreed to come back to the franchise because Paul Greengrass, director of Parts 2 and 3, was also returning. I’m relieved for Jeremy Renner, not so thrilled for Matt Damon. Neither of these actors deserves this series, although it does less harm for Damon as an actor and more good for his career, because he’s already positioned himself as our next Everyman, the new Tom Hanks or Harrison Ford or Gary Cooper. But Jason Bourne is an ugly movie, the epitome of the summer blockbuster at its worst, collapsing in on itself like a ramshackle house built on top of a sinkhole. It’s the Donald Trump of summer movies: nonsensical, excessive, depressing.
It’s somewhat shocking to me that people actually relish this series. Matt Damon, likable as he is, isn’t enough for me. Others are, I think, turned on by the movies’ supposedly “high-octane” thrills. All of the films move rapidly. Barry Ackroyd, the cinematographer of Jason Bourne, maintains this tradition. His camera never stops, and it’s almost constantly in close-up. It feels like we’re peaking over the actors’ shoulders and pressing our faces up against windows, hovering so closely we can paint our hot breath onto the panes. But this is ugly filmmaking. The camera advances its chaotic story with all the finesse of a child violently shaking a LEGO man out of a toy car. There’s no magic, no organic excitement, merely the cheap thrills of flashiness that represent impoverished storytelling. And Jason Bourne feels particularly repellant in its ugliness, for it’s both ugly as a movie and ugly at heart. For a film this corporate to be so cynical about American government feels like blatant hypocrisy. There’s some grim talk of patriotism: Jason Bourne is a rogue CIA man who’s being hunted by his own government, unless they can persuade him to rejoin their forces.
Why the CIA would want him back is something of a mystery, since they have a masterful hired assassin, played by Vincent Cassel, working for them. Cassel, with his narrow, upside-down triangle of a face and his frog-like eyes, is somehow handsome, yet he’s unusual too. Seventy years ago he would have been playing parts meant for Peter Lorre, except that he’s taller and more calculating. He makes glamour out of his corruption, and even with a part as one-note as this, Cassel conveys presence and humor, always striking a sharp contrast to the gloomy character played by Matt Damon. Damon, on the other hand, is an ideal good guy, driven by his own moral code when he realizes the moral code of his country has deceived him.
Jason Bourne wants desperately to have something to say, but it’s far too shallow to make much of its promising themes. The film concerns itself with surveillance in the digital age: Riz Ahmed plays a billionaire social media mogul, who took money from the government to fund his social networking site, in exchange for data on millions of private citizens; Julia Stiles plays a hacker who steals files from the CIA, which enables an opportunistic rookie played by Alicia Vikander to exhibit her tech savvy and get the files back. (She wants to impress her superior, played by Tommy Lee Jones, but she also wants to surpass him.) Vikander’s character deletes the files remotely, just after they’ve been transmitted to Jason Bourne. Vikander’s performance is too grim too, and she looks like a baby, perhaps because she’s so often acting opposite grizzled old Tommy Lee.