Jason Bourne begins with a montage of the CIA assassin's greatest, grisliest hits, in case you're suffering from franchise amnesia. Details can be sketchy, nearly a decade after everything about this conflicted killing machine appeared settled, at least as far as Matt Damon was concerned.
Nine years and a misbegotten spinoff later, Damon and director Paul Greengrass return, now without the late author Robert Ludlum's storyline to set the stage. What could be a cash grab turns out to be the series' finest chapter, with the same piano-wire tension plus a narrative clarity lacking before.
As Bourne's memory of his betrayal clears, so does the plot, even as stakes rise and new characters are introduced. Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse devise a deeper vengeance motivation for Bourne, on a worthier target oozing topical menace. This movie likely could stand on its own, a wise goal after so long.
Those passing years haven't been easy for Bourne. He's making ends meet as a brawler for Macedonian gamblers when ex-partner Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) finds him, offering another clue to the black-ops mystery of the Treadstone project that programmed him to kill. To say this time it's personal would be an understatement.
Nicky learns that Bourne's father (Gregg Henry, in flashbacks) was involved with Treadstone, just before he was murdered by terrorists. Meanwhile, her cyber-sleuthing draws the attention of CIA security analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), who reports to director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) that Bourne may be alive and with her. Dewey dispatches an assassin known only as the Asset (Vincent Cassel, hissable) to eliminate both.
It's a comparably straightforward scenario, kinetically steered by Greengrass with his signature hand-held camera urgency and neck-swivel editing. Jason Bourne is a motion picture in every sense and frame, in which even tapping on computer keyboards creates heightened suspense. Then, when a beatdown or car or foot chase comes along, Greengrass floors it, keeping the action clear and visceral. Just say wow.
As the Treadstone mystery deepens, Dewey's involvement with social media mogul Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) hints that Bourne isn't the CIA project's only collateral damage. The screenplay takes a clever turn ripped from the Web pages of online privacy concerns. Nicky's cyber-security breach is compared to Edward Snowden's, and suddenly we're also in Dewey's cross-hairs. For three movies this has been Bourne's problem alone. Now it's ours.
What keeps this from sinking into arch paranoia are the impeccably measured performances by Jones and Vikander. Jones' calcified expressions of mistrust haven't been used this effectively in years, his slightest movements meaningful. Vikander captures a woman playing everything close to her vest, leading to a uncommonly satisfying finale.
Damon's grim, taciturn demeanor as Bourne doesn't hide the actor's pleasure in reprising his defining role, an Oscar and The Martian be damned. This is an enormously physical role, and Damon is bulked up, but not superhumanly so. Those ego-less flecks of gray are character clues. Damon as Jason Bourne is a study in action flick empathy, with a trace of ordinary to make us believe, hey, we could do that.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.