Action heroes might get dirty, but their consciences stay clean. Who has room for ambivalence, after all, when the directives are always so well defined? Someone has to stop scaly aliens from invading the White House; save chronically kidnapped teenage daughters from sex traffickers; crack the Matrix. If bystander blood is shed and a few inconvenient buildings explode, well, that’s just the cost of getting things done.
Trained assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is at least superficially a member of this exclusive — and still almost exclusively male — club, and there are enough spectacular kills on his résumé to earn him more than one splattery MVP award. From the beginning, though, he’s also been a man apart, haunted not only by his own classified origin story but by the consequences of his body count, too. That’s helped create a character compelling enough to sustain four (five, if you count 2012’s decent but Damon-free offshoot The Bourne Legacy) films over nearly 15 years. And it’s also made Bourne feel like the rare genre star who actually holds a mirror to these messy, morally ambiguous times: He doesn’t air-drop into impossible missions like a spandexed spider, or slip on his daytime tuxedo to take down a pack of ninjas using nothing but drain cleaner and deadly bons mots. He sweats; his skin bruises. (He does, of course, still throw punches way better than your average bear; this is a billion-dollar franchise, not a documentary.) And as Jason Bourne — he’s been stripped of Identity or Supremacy or Ultimatums — begins, he is as down-and-out as we’ve ever seen him: living off the grid in squalid bedsits, taking bets from bare-knuckle fight clubs in dusty border towns. But when his onetime CIA contact Nicky (Julia Stiles) finds new evidence of future ops and past family wrongs, he’s off on the hunt again — and back in the crosshairs of the shadow agency that made him. A stony Tommy Lee Jones, outsquinting the Marlboro Man, is the one to wear the Big Government black hat this time — though Bourne also has help from the inside, thanks to renegade agent Heather Lane (an intriguing but underused Alicia Vikander).
Director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips, United 93) has always had a taste for the topical and political, and his third Bourne outing augments the usual truth-and-justice talking points with a strenuously current nod to digital privacy issues via a Zuckerberg-like social-media mogul (Riz Ahmed). If anything, he underplays those assets, shorting deeper story development for exotic zip codes, bang-up fisticuffs, and adrenalized chase scenes (one of which delivers a level of casual collateral damage that feels, after the events in Nice, ill-timed at best). Jason Bourne has already given us a hero who transcends two dimensions. We just need to know more about what he’s fighting for. B+