Whatever it does or doesn’t accomplish as a piece of entertainment, the fourth Matt Damon Jason Bourne film — imaginatively entitled Jason Bourne — makes a strong evolutionary case for multitasking. It’s not enough that Bourne, the ex-CIA assassin turned pariah, can box, kung-fu fight, and drive at high speeds on the wrong side of the road. To survive, he must also reckon with an incalculable number of cameras pointing this way and that in search of him, and on his image being beamed to people across an ocean with the desire and personnel to kill him, quickly.
To evade the watchers, Bourne must anticipate their watching, watch them back, and also, if possible, listen to them — which means bugging them while they’re watching him. It’s a lot to hold in one’s brain — far more than it was for, say, the innocent man played by Robert Redford in the seminal 1975 paranoid conspiracy thriller, Three Days of the Condor, who only had to cope with a sad-faced Max von Sydow, a bogus mailman, and Faye Dunaway’s bad temper. Enemy of the State (1998) demonstrated how far surveillance had come in a mere two decades, and the Bourne movies suggest that only a superman (Nietzschean and DC-ian) has a chance against the high-tech hive mind that is the modern Central Intelligence Agency.
As an actor, Matt Damon has too much integrity to pretend he can multitask to that advanced degree and still be, you know, a fun person. So he turns his face into a mask of stoicism and gives the dullest performance of his career. It’s in service to the film, though, which he co-produced, and from which he’ll make more than you would in ten lifetimes.
Jason Bourne isn’t much more fun than Damon is — it’s too assaultive and humorless. But it’s a wow. Wow is it a wow. Coming back to the series after nine years, director Paul Greengrass clearly knew he had to beat all those Bourne imitations, those cookie-cutter thrillers shot with jittery cameras in the style of documentaries. He creates teeming, claustrophobia-inducing frames, with the action off-center. He isn’t a free-floating action director like Luc Besson, for whom gravity isn’t a constant. Greengrass rights the frame before knocking it off-kilter again, as if he’s momentarily clearing your head. When Bourne punches someone, the camera jerks in the direction of the blow, as if you’re being hit. In the most jaw-dropping chase, Bourne pursues a superassassin (“The Asset,” played by Vincent Cassel) who steals a tanklike SWAT vehicle and pulverizes half the cars in Las Vegas. It’s not exciting — it’s wince-inducing.
Here’s the plot: People chase Bourne around the world trying to kill him. Well, his first chaser wants to help him. She’s an ex-CIA agent (Julia Stiles, returning to the series) who’s acting on behalf of a Julian Assange–like figure (Vinzenz Kiefer) bent on exposing CIA ops going back decades — among them the one where Bourne was recruited as an assassin, which happened before the first film, The Bourne Identity. He tells her that the agency’s practices, past and present, don’t matter to him. She says they do. He says, “All that matters is staying alive … off the grid.” She says there’s stuff in the files she stole about Bourne’s dead dad that will help him understand his life and maybe, down the road, crack a smile: “You’ve tortured yourself for a long time. You need to read those files.” He listens but his face reveals nothing. Surprise. He doesn’t like that Assange character, who’s shown to be a complete opportunist mouthing political platitudes while indifferent to human life. For all the au courant issues — the threats posed by a surveillance state, the lack of online privacy, the morality of Edward Snowden–like leakers, and even the economic meltdown in Greece (which factors in when Bourne and “the Asset” get swept up in an Athens riot) — the movie comes down to revenge. “You killed my father, prepare to die.”
A-list “It” girl Alicia Vikander plays the CIA computer whiz who thinks she can bring Bourne back into the fold, which even I, with no experience in intelligence or even much intelligence, can see is the world’s most idiotic hunch. The CIA director played by Tommy Lee Jones disagrees and thinks Bourne should be firmly put down along with anyone who has ever met Bourne, various uppity tech billionaires, and many of his own agents.
Jones’s dyspeptic deadpan is the only fun thing in Jason Bourne. In one scene, he’s in a restaurant with a tech billionaire — a Steve Jobs–like guru (Riz Ahmed) who’s fighting to protect his customers’ privacy. (Jones is always grumbling about damn civil liberties interfering with national security: “You kids get off my White House lawn!”) Two people walk by and Jones stops talking and stares at them until they pass, and that stare is one of the creepiest, craziest, and most hilarious things I’ve seen in a long time. Jones is just so convincingly mean. Too bad his character goes on to concoct a conspiracy that would make people who think NASA faked the moon landing roll their eyes. Why do bad guys trying to keep state secrets under wraps always stage such epic bloodbaths?
Watching the movie requires multitasking: You have to pay attention to multiple screens, to keep the spatial relations straight while the camera is, in effect, yanking you around. Is the boffo success of thrillers like Jason Bourne proof that our brains have evolved enough to follow multiple data streams at dizzying speeds — and, if so, why did I leave the movie feeling brain-damaged?