Can a movie be simultaneously generic and entertaining? “Jason Bourne” is about as functional a filmgoing experience as they come. From the no-frills title — none of those fancy nouns to clutter things up — to the globe-hopping story line to the splintery, state-of-the-art action sequences, the movie’s a work of dogged professionalism both on the screen and behind it. It exists for no other reason than that people like Matt Damon, they like him as this character, and the producers know audiences are willing to see more of him.
This is the fifth “Bourne” film — the fourth, if you discount 2012’s “The Bourne Legacy,” with Jeremy Renner gamely fighting a mediocre script. The spy novels of Robert Ludlum on which the movies are supposedly based are by now far in the rearview mirror. With Damon returning as star and the prodigiously talented Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips”) directing his third in the series, “Jason Bourne” has everything going for it except a reason why. As noted, this is not strictly necessary.
What it does mean is that the story’s a retread. The amnesiac Bourne — no matter what the posters say, it’s not actually his name — is still off the grid and mooning around Europe, trying to atone for his years of being a brainwashed CIA killing machine by beating up Russians twice his size in illegal bare-knuckles boxing matches. It’s a living.
Some deep-cover computer hackery by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), Bourne’s one-time agency colleague, puts all the CIA’s black ops files on a handy thumb drive while alerting the spymasters at Langley: CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and an ambitious up-and-comer named Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). The call goes out — “Jason Bourne is back in play” — and an ice-blooded hit man called The Asset (Vincent Cassel) is brought in. The climax of the film’s first act is a chaotic but marvelously controlled action sequence that involves multiple players crisscrossing and double-crossing each other in the midst of a raging Athens political riot, burning couches falling from balconies while everyone in the cast tries to kill everyone else.
And there you have what makes the “Bourne” movies watchable even when they’re not particularly inspired: a top-flight cast, a director who can choreograph complicated action scenes with intelligence, glamorous international locations, a script that’s wall-to-wall spook speak (“Deploy Alpha and Bravo to the square”) and dramatic stakes that seem high (national security! the surveillance state! rogue spymasters! daddy issues!) but actually remain rather vague.
To its credit, “Jason Bourne” doesn’t try to cook up a romance between the hero and Vikander’s coolly assured CIA wonk. These films are too grim and fast-paced for either Bourne or Damon to lighten up for even a second, and, truth be told, it’s interesting to watch an actor who’s fundamentally at ease with himself — as Damon appears to be — play a character who doesn’t even know who he is. What little amusement there is comes from Jones’s splendidly eccentric line readings. He plays the CIA director as if he were the devil himself, and when the Machiavellian Dewey pretends to accede to an underling’s suggestion, the spin that Jones gives his line — “Let’s give it a shot” — brings a grateful hoot of laughter from the audience.
All good things. Less good things include the waste of the mercurial Cassel in a formulaic hit-man role, the waste of the fine young actor Riz Ahmed (HBO’s “The Night Of”) in the underdeveloped part of a social media whiz-kid tycoon, and the wasting of Las Vegas and several perfectly fine casinos in a final action ramalama that destroys many cars and buildings while feeling like one chase scene too many. At the end of “Jason Bourne,” you may realize that the hero is pretty much right where he was at the beginning and that the series itself has ceased to move forward in any meaningful way. You don’t have to be an amnesiac to love the movie, but it would probably help.
Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum. Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 121 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, brief strong language).
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.