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'Jason Bourne' is a disappointingly disposable entry

After a failed spin-off, Matt Damon is back in a new episode that fails to go next-level.

‘Jason Bourne’
Director:
Paul Greengrass
Stars: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Jason Bourne” isn’t five minutes old and its hero has knocked out a dude. It only takes one punch, too. Matt Damon’s renegade super-spy is nine years older than he was the last time he was onscreen. His face is craggier, his eyes hardened by pain, his three-day beard sufficiently broody. But he’s also more ripped, more lethal. The mid-40s Damon got in the best shape of his life, and as he goes bareknuckling with a muscled colossus on the Greek-Albanian border, his solitary punch is a statement of purpose: We’re not messing around. We’re tougher than ever. We’re bringing the goods.

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But it’s also a lie. It’s cocky WWE pre-fight trash talk by a wrassler trying to hide that he’s too hungover to piledrive. That might be overstating it: This is a perfectly diverting picture, bringing back, after the so-so failed spin-off “Legacy,” not just the series’ big star but its director, Paul Greengrass, who gave the movies their singular herky-jerk, whiplashy voice with “Supremacy” and “Ultimatum.” But it’s the first “Bourne” to not go next-level. It tries to bring back the good old days but comes off like the guy who still wants to shotgun Buds (or Americas) at 50 while blasting W.A.S.P. It plays like a disposable airport novel — like, say, one of the Bourne books by Robert Ludlum, whose content the movie versions have mostly ignored.

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It’s a major step-down from “Ultimatum,” which is even more obvious since the new one’s almost a remake. That one felt like a new kind of action cinema, the one dreamt of by genre junkies: It was basically one long chase scene, with few, very brief respites. This one has a bit more plot, more downtime. It still makes little sense. Bourne is called out of hiding for insufficient reasons, then scampers about the globe trying to stop a new and improved version of America’s super-secret super-assassin program that sounds a lot like the original one. It's run by the series’ fourth scary old white guy (now Tommy Lee Jones). There’s also talk of even more expanded surveillance tactics, which is opposed by a Mark Zuckerberg type (Riz Ahmed) in too deep with government goons. Yes, this is a movie in which Jason Bourne tries to save Facebook.

It still sticks to the “Ultimatum” story beats. Around the 20-minute mark, right on cue, we get a repeat of the last one’s peerless Waterloo Station hunt. Here, Bourne finds himself in another public space. But it’s not just anxious commuters; it’s angry protesters in Athens, prone to throw Molotov cocktails at police. It’s bigger, but it’s not better. It lacks the shape and precision of its “Ultimatum” analog — basically a lot of noise and stuff and things, all of it gripping but never electrifying.

This stretch seems sort of topical — as luck would have it (ahem), protests are even more in vogue now than they were when “Jason Bourne” was in pre-production. But it feels dropped in, incidental, just a cynical attempt to make this seem more of the moment. Compare it with “Ultimatum.” Released in 2007, that film was steeped in the sickly climate of the time. Its villains were the types who waged war without oversight or regulation, who talked about only stopping “when we’ve won,” whenever that is. It was a ’70s conspiracy thriller modernized and roided up. The secret ingredient wasn’t punching and quick cuts. It was George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

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Where does Bourne fit in the age of Obama? It shouldn’t be that hard to fit him in. Many of the last administration’s seedier tactics lived on; some were even ramped up. “Jason Bourne” inevitably dwells on the NSA and the surveillance state and the danger of a non-free Internet. But like the Athens protests, they all feel shoe-horned in rather than organic to the plot. Films take forever to make, so it’s not its fault that our greatest fear right now isn’t a reckless government but a government that may prove even more reckless should it fall into the hands of an emotionally spastic sociopath with small hands.

We’re being really hard on “Jason Bourne,” which does deliver the goods, occasionally. Greengrass can still lather up nerve-jangling set pieces. In all honesty the bit of automotive mayhem that closes this one out is even better than the one that closed out “Ultimatum.” (Greengrass even shot some cleaner images than usual this time, so you actually get some gmoney shots of a marauding SWAT truck plowing through stalled cars along the main drag of Las Vegas. It's like the traffic jam bit from Godard's "Week-end" as a a rip-roaring action scene.) This is an almost passable time-waster that’s also noticeably dumber than past episodes, complete with a groaning bit of new Bourne backstory that turns the movie into a telenova. With a lesser franchise, “Jason Bourne” might have gotten away with it, too.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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