Is it possible to make a mass audience summer movie that's as smart as it is entertaining, as relevant and contemporary as it is escapist? The answer is yes, especially if the name Bourne is involved.
"Jason Bourne" is the fourth film to feature Matt Damon as that unstoppable secret agent, the third to be directed by Paul Greengrass and, like its predecessors, it's a pip. Made with a palpable sense of urgency, this tense, propulsive motion picture is a model of what mainstream entertainment can be like when everything goes right.
As last year's "The Martian" underlined yet again, the gifted Damon is intuitively empathetic, and it's the genius of the Bourne films (originally based on Robert Ludlum's novels) to fuse his persona with that of a human wrecking ball, someone who can floor hulking bruisers with a single punch and take out teams of trained CIA agents like they were so many clumsy kindergartners.
Damon (paired with new costars Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander and Vincent Cassel) is as good as he's ever been here, and so caught up in the ferocity of this role he's almost unrecognizable at times.
But the actor had made it clear over the years (it's been nine since "The Bourne Ultimatum") that he wouldn't be reprising the role unless a story that was both exciting and spoke to current socio-political concerns could be found.
Scripted by Greengrass and his writing partner, Christopher Rouse (also the film's dynamic editor), "Jason Bourne" certainly does that. Not only are settings like fiery anti-austerity riots in Athens' Snytagma Square used for key chase sequences, but the questions the film raises uncannily resonate with contemporary concerns.
In an age when "full spectrum surveillance," the notion of governments willing and able to watch everyone all the time, is closer to reality than science fiction, questions of balancing personal rights against public safety are widespread, as is the notion of competing definitions of patriotism and how one acts them out.
Working with many of his regular team, including cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, production designer Paul Kirby and composer John Powell, Greengrass has seen to it that these themes are not just high-flown window dressing but integral to the twisty and compelling "Jason Bourne" narrative.
After the briefest of prologues, reminding us that the last film ended with Bourne discovering the secret of his origins as a human weapon, the new one begins with a brisk hopscotch around the globe as a staccato series of plot strands are introduced in a way that gets us completely involved.
First we see Bourne himself, looking older but not wiser, transacting fight club business on the Greek-Albanian border. Then series veteran and former CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) knocks on a clandestine door in Reykjavik, Iceland, intent on researching Bourne's past.
At CIA HQ in Langley, Va., Nicky's security breach is brought to the attention of steely operative Heather Lee (Vikander), a protege of new CIA Director Robert Dewey (Jones), a man who wouldn't hesitate to kill his own mother if it brought Bourne closer to capture.
Also brought into the loop sooner rather than later are Silicon Valley whiz Aaron Kallor (the reliable Riz Ahmed), founder and CEO of Deep Dream — with 15 billion users, kind of a Facebook on steroids — who enigmatically asks an associate, "are we exposed?"
And then there is a man who, in a deft touch, is known only as "the Asset," a relentless contract killer (convincingly played by Cassell) who has his own reasons for wanting Bourne in his sights.
Although the story that involves all these folks is of necessity a complicated one, with betrayals, backstabbings and hairsbreadth escapes the order of the day, its narrative thrust is quite simple: Bourne is determined to find out more information about his past and the CIA, not to put too fine a point on it, wants to terminate him before he can do that.
Given how unstoppable Bourne can be when he gets going, finding convincing antagonists for him is essential, and Vikander, the actress of the moment who brings her gift for nuance to the table, and Jones, Mr. Take No Prisoners himself, are fully up to the task.
Just as persuasive as the actors are the techniques Greengrass and his team have employed. Not only is co-writer Rouse's editing appropriately edgy and off-balance, both the director and his cinematographer (aided by the top second-unit work by Simon Crane) have documentary film backgrounds, resulting in a visual style that makes everything feel as real as it can.
With each moment, each shot exactly calculated to enhance credibility, the result is just as costar Cassell says in the press material: "It manages to make everything look like images stolen from reality." It's rare for a film to succeed at being both escapist and engaged, but for Jason Bourne, man and franchise, the impossible is all in a day's work.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
In general release.
Critic's Choice. "Jason Bourne." The fourth film to feature Matt Damon as that unstoppable secret agent, the third to be directed by Paul Greengrass, this most propulsive motion picture is a model of what mainstream entertainment can be like when everything goes right. - Kenneth Turan