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'Jason Bourne' Needs To Tone Down The Seriousness And Focus On The Ass-Kicking

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Why does Hollywood seem to hate Alicia Vikander? Yes, yes, I know she bagged an Oscar in February. But looking at her role in Jason Bourne, the fifth (sort of) entry in the Matt Damon superstar franchise, the film does everything it can to limit her abilities. Vikander plays a CIA cyber-analyst named Heather; an announcement about her appointment in the film reads the ultra-boilerplate phrase "I think I can make a difference." Like Joan Allen before her, she gets on the Bourne's trail but also suspects that her superior, the Southern-drawled CIA head played by Tommy Lee Jones, may be hiding the darker secrets.

Vikander gets little to do beyond strenuously stare at computer screens, deliver exposition in droll monotones without a hint of curiosity or excitement underneath that British accent. She gets to wear black eyeshadow with a gray-red lipstick and a clip tightening her hair back into an awkward bun all while sporting a series of dark blue pantsuits. Is her pouting lip and steely-eyed stares meant for her superiors or those behind the camera? I'm not demanding that she smile, but why does Vikander keep getting cast as these charmless and (literally) robotic personalities? Why does it take a filmmaker like Guy Ritchie (of all people) to be the only one to show off her looseness and playful side?

The issues with Vikander represent some of the bigger strains with the latest film from Captain Philips director Paul Greengrass, who also directed the Supremacy and Ultimatum entries. Once again, the plot is more or less a McGuffin; an early revelation by Julia Stiles' hacker and ally to Bourne puts him on the quest to find what happened to his dear old father. The template is simple: international locations, a few action beats, and nods to the international zeitgeist. Edward Snowden gets a couple shoutouts for posterity, while an action sequence set in the midst of a clash of Greece protesters dares not mention any reason for such chaos. A subplot dealing with a secret deal between Jones' CIA chief and Riz Ahmed as a Zuckerberg-style CEO of a 1.5 billion-user social media platform attempts to offer tough questions about... Facebook privacy settings?

Whether blockbusters have a duty or not to address The Way We Live Now is a debate for another time, but Jason Bourne's attempts at relevance feel desperately ham-fisted. This series has never been one to make jokes, but the somber tone of this franchise weights it in portentousness. The script, co-written between Greengrass and the film's editor Christopher Rouse, attempts to grapple with the political climate in between numerous shots of people staring nervously at computer screens. If anyone so much as cracks a single smile in the entire film, it must only be in the background of a shot. Damon may have become a superstar with Bourne, but films like The Informant! and The Martian have helped in perfect a type of chameleon everyman with his careless smiles and puffy face. Bourne sucks that dry from him, leaving only the hardened scars on his face.

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The action style of the Bourne films has often remained contentious for its fans as well as detractors. Greengrass and his DP Barry Ackroyd shoot Jason Bourne on an array of digital and celluloid formats, but more than ever they lean toward coherence by choosing wider shots and holding them for an extra second longer. The film's action setpieces for the most part set up cat-and-mouse mysteries, with characters walking at a brisk pace around a location, broken up by swift moments of close-quarters combat. These kind of chases play into Greengrass and Rouse's editing style, where the parallel editing between different characters adds to the suspense with rhythmic increases in tempo. The two car chase sequences and some of the awe-inspiring moments would be so much cooler if we could see the damn vehicles crash, but the brutality of the hand-to-hand combats works for this editing style. In these smaller bouts, the camera might not give the entire sense of the choreography, but the visceral jolts it captures through the details of a punch or a kick giving a quick secession of seemingly bone-crunching moments in a span of four seconds. In a film so overboard with serious questions, one has to enjoy the small pleasures of an ass kicking.

Jason Bourne opens on Friday everywhere.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.