“I remember everything,” Jason Bourne says in voiceover at the beginning of his latest movie. After three films in a row focused on Bourne (Matt Damon) trying to recover the memories of how he became an amnesiac CIA assassin (not counting 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, in which Bourne didn’t appear at all), this should be a huge step forward in his life. But as it turns out, remembering that he volunteered for the CIA reprogramming process doesn’t change his anger and distrust at the agency that betrayed him and keeps trying to murder him. Knowing his identity doesn’t repair his shattered sense of self. And accessing his past just means accessing mysteries he’d forgotten about, like the question of who murdered his father. So Bourne is back for another flashback-laden shaky-cam adventure, charging frantically through the streets of city after city, trying to stay a few steps ahead of an all-powerful CIA that wants to wipe out pretty much anyone he talks to.
This time around, that CIA is quietly divided against itself. Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), the organization’s cynical, heavy-handed director, wants to kill Bourne at any cost. Ambitious agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) thinks she can bring Bourne back into the fold, get Dewey out of the way in the process, and make her career. The political maneuvering between Dewey and Lee gives Jason Bourne most of the power it can muster: At the very least, it means there are enough factions and agenda-juggling in the action scenes to seriously complicate the story, past the usual cat-and-mouse setup.
But returning director Paul Greengrass and his co-writer and editor, Christopher Rouse, have a hard time overcoming the sense of repetition that's subsumed both the series and this particular installment. They've taken over screenwriting duties from Armageddon writer Tony Gilroy, and it feels like they scripted with much more interest in creating on-screen action than stitching that action together. The entire movie is packed wall-to-wall with characters rushing from one side of the screen to the other in chaotic environments. Sometimes they're running toward each other, sometimes they're running away, sometimes they're using vehicles to speed up escape or pursuit. But each scene features the same chaotic angles, the same dogged grimaces, and the same life-or-death stakes.
Greengrass and Rouse build part of the plot around the familiar boogeyman of modern blockbuster-thrillers: the threat that the American government might create a perfect surveillance system, permanently ending citizen privacy. (See also: Captain America: The Winter Soldier; the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre; and Furious 7.) But given that roughly a fifth of Jason Bourne consists of the CIA watching Bourne through an elaborate network of satellites, helicopters, and CCTV cameras positioned in every country he visits, it's profoundly unclear how the agency could possibly be more powerful than it already is. The difference, apparently, is that the new surveillance would come through Deep Dream, a social-media network that tracks user data to provide a personalized experience. So, presumably, the CIA would be spying on Americans' personal lives instead of a former employee's public movement through Athens, London, and Berlin. But the film doesn't bother to distinguish between the two.
It also doesn't make much of a case for its technological terrors. For a film steeped in up-to-the-minute surveillance fears, Jason Bourne feels as dim and broad as a 1990s net-panic hacker movie. Early on, Bourne's gal pal Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) cracks the CIA firewall, finds their secret evil files — all stored in a single folder neatly labeled "black ops," thank goodness — downloads them all onto a thumb drive, and threatens to release them to the public, WikiLeaks-style. Later, a captured image gets the "zoom and enhance" treatment that's become such a giggly cliché in any film featuring blurry security-camera footage. And then Dewey meets with Deep Dream's creator, CIA-funded tech entrepreneur Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) to discuss how the CIA plans to compromise Deep Dream for evil. (Strangely, they meet in public, even though they're both well-known public figures, and one picture of the two of them together would compromise the whole scheme.) Aaron has a vast, enthusiastic following that treats him like a rock star, even though the vaguely defined product he's offering the world sounds like Facebook with more customized advertising. It's never really explained why anyone would care, what the CIA hopes to learn from his users, or why he thought that if he paid back his CIA seed money, the agency would leave him alone forever.
Technical and narrative precision is much of the draw of Greengrass films like United 93 and Captain Phillips, so his more visually abstract and chaotic approach to his Bourne movies (2004's The Bourne Supremacy and 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum) has always been a little surprising. But Jason Bourne goes further into abstraction, making the tech explanations vague and improbable. Other movies might be able to get away with this kind of laziness, but Jason Bourne is ultimately a high-tech thriller, where a few daring people war against the seemingly unstoppable machine that's determined to turn them into data, then erase them. "Privacy is freedom," Aaron defiantly tells Dewey, and the film proves him right — when Bourne and Lee get a few seconds to talk with no one listening in, it's a rare gift, and a major turning point for the film. But in a story where technology is essentially immensely powerful voodoo, it's hard to respect or even comprehend what it means to have people working outside its limitations.
That aside, though, Bourne is numbing in its relentless, repetitive pursuit sequences, some of which add absolutely nothing to the story except wrecked cars and extra minutes. The action setpieces are designed for maximum impact: the pursuit amid a full-scale riot in Athens is particularly beautifully choreographed, and executed on an impressive scale, with a pounding score revs up the adrenaline. But scene after scene brings in the same dynamic, frantic cutting, and constantly shifting angles.
And the actors don't get enough space to give the film a personality. They're mostly doing their utmost to mask any hint of emotion. Damon as Bourne is a ground-in, well-habituated scowl. Vincent Cassel as his nemesis, known only as "The Asset," is a matching stone-faced glower. Vikander's entire role is based in keeping her feelings and agendas under strict lockdown so she doesn't tip her hand. Tommy Lee Jones at least gets to play the exasperation he usually brings to weary administrators with agendas, in films from The Fugitive to Men In Black, and Stiles gets to play frightened-and-frantic. But these are one-note roles in a film where the characters don't feel like people, so much as chess pieces being moved back and forth across the board at frantic speed. The actors are all suited perfectly to their roles, and they cleanly embody malice, or determination, or their masks. But there's no way into any of these characters' inner lives. They're all assets, first and foremost.
It's vaguely funny to see Jason Bourne, the man without a memory, finding out that having his history intact doesn't actually help him at all. He's still subject to violent flashbacks, still obsessed with his father, still fighting the same past battles over and over. He's Batman on a bender, perpetually trying to avenge the one crime he can never reverse, and relying on quick thinking and hard hitting to get him from one crisis to the next. And Lee is his latest Catwoman, the lady on the wrong side who wants to slip into his life and access all that rage to her own ends. But even the grimmest Batman movies take a little downtime once in a while, to let Batman slip into Bruce Wayne mode and be a person rather than an icon. Jason Bourne doesn't really have that function anymore. He's all about the next car chase, the next victim to threaten, the next foe to flee. Eventually, even perpetual pursuit gets dull, and Jason Bourne finds that point early, then just keeps charging monotonously forward.