Here it is: Matt Damon’s fourth and not necessarily final outing as the CIA’s amnesiac super-assassin gone rogue, Jason Bourne. That’s after The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and not counting franchise spinoff The Bourne Legacy (2012) in which Bourne himself did not actually appear.
This latest iteration reunites Damon with director Paul Greengrass who as ever shows his mastery of muscular, deafening, frenetically edited action sequences - the visual equivalent of a drum-roll. Greengrass, who has co-written the film with his editor Christopher Rouse, whisks us to cities all over the world and the drama here culminates in an eye-poppingly spectacular finale in Las Vegas, whose skyline is dominated by the Trump hotel.
Bourne combines a hi-tech awareness of how he is being tracked by his former employers with a low-tech readiness to beat the living daylights out of assailants who get in his face – improvising with what’s available. He snaps off a table-leg to give someone what for, and even wrenches out the handle from a one-armed bandit in Vegas casino to disable the control panel in an elevator. Matt Damon has grown into the role: in some ways I’d rather see him as this bulked-up tough guy than the smirking and preposterous “botanist” he played in The Martian.
As so often in the past, Jason is about to blow the cover on the “secret super-killer” operation of which he forms a part - the everyday uncontested business of super-killing is never the point. And as ever, the creepy and duplicitous agency chiefs are unsure whether to bring him in or rub him out. This new movie, being simply called Jason Bourne, perhaps indicates a kind of human summation, a drawing the line under the series – I remember Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa hinting at something similar.
Bourne is laying low, off-grid, apparently making a living on the bare knuckle fight circuit somewhere in southern and central Europe – kicking the ass of various tattooed Serbs for cash. Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) his longtime associate and quasi-romantic interest now makes a reappearance to get him to break cover and become her ally in a new Snowden-style whistleblowing – she is going to upload to the web all the files concerning “Treadstone” (his personal operation) and many other murky projects.
This catches the hooded eye of the careworn, cynical CIA director Robert Dewey, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who calls into play a brutal “asset” or assassin, played by the reliably hatchet-faced Vincent Cassel – the non-American casting subliminally signalling his basic inferiority to the apparent traitor Bourne. Meanwhile, Dewey has a brilliant and feline new subordinate, Heather Lee, played by Alicia Vikander, who argues that Bourne has to be persuaded to turn himself in, not whacked. Heather happens to be a college contemporary of Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) who is the Zuckerberg-style genius running a social media platform called Deep Dream, which may or may not be assisting the US intelligence services with wholesale data-mining and privacy-breaching.
And at the centre of all this, Bourne is coming closer to uncovering a terrible personal truth about the death of his father in the late 90s: an agency man that Jason has always believed had a quiet desk job far from the front line.
Since the Bourne franchise was introduced at the beginning of the last decade, re-inventing Robert Ludlum’s 80s hero in the middle of the war on terror, he has been an ambiguous figure ideologically. A robust patriot and man of action who is also dissident and rebellious. Bourne started off by making James Bond look a bit square – the same initials were tweaking the Brit spy’s nose – but Bourne was himself then made to seem macho and outmoded by Claire Danes’s complex, cerebral performance in TV’s Homeland, while 007 himself appeared to be re-invigorated with new infusions of style and wit.
The Snowden/social media plotline of this film does a bit to make Bourne more relevant. But the ingredients are basically the same. Each souped-up action scene and punch-up has an extra level of digital sophistication: the participants are often wearing earpieces and it is all being watched over by a mission-control team at Langley, Virginia – like the guys at Houston monitoring the progress of an Apollo moon mission. They have, to use the jargon, “eyes on” what is happening, using pictures from drones, or cameras on their operatives, or hacked feed from local CCTV.
Is that pure fantasy? The famous photo of President Obama and his team witnessing the killing of Osama Bin Laden makes these scenes more credible – but in Bourne they are more fancifully imagined in semi-darkness, lit by a glitzy array of screens, with people urgently shouting to each other, as if in a gallery directing a live TV show.
Basically, Bourne comes alive when in a tensely professional, platonic relationship with a woman – and that is Vikander’s Heather. There are the makings of a spark there. But it comes very late on – and perhaps Vikander may just suffer Julia Stiles’s fate while Matt Damon’s testosterone goes on for ever. Perhaps it really is time for Jason to hang up his Glock and give someone else a chance. Surely Alicia Vikander deserves a go at being an action heroine?
• This article was amended on 26 July. The original called Mark Zuckerberg Mark Zuckerman. This has been corrected.
This article was written by Peter Bradshaw, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th July 2016 08.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010