The 2016 summer movie season has been a big disappointment so far and ‘Jason Bourne’ fails to rise above the dreck. I take no pleasure in reporting this dear reader. I’m a big fan of the first three Bourne films and of director Paul Greengrass (‘The Bourne Supremacy’, ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, ‘United 93’, ‘Captain Phillips’, and the wildly underrated ‘Green Zone’ among others). If the creative reunion of Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon was meant to serve as a corrective to ‘The Bourne Legacy’ from 2012 (the Bourne movie without Jason Bourne), then I’m afraid to say the retrogression continues.
For those of you wondering what former CIA operative and assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has been up to in the nine years since ‘Bourne Ultimatum’, you’ll be glad to discover that he has been off the grid making a living by earning betting money from street fights. Remember Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) from the earlier Bourne pictures? If not, you’ll be lost. She hacks into a CIA database and uncovers some files regarding a number of black ops programs, including ones about Bourne’s past, particularly the details around what really happened to his father.
CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) can’t let that happen so he uses CIA Special Ops specialist Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and a hit man known only as “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel) to contain the situation. Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse enswathe the movie with topics of the now: cyber terrorism, surveillance state concerns, tech companies colluding with government agencies. Sadly, it’s just a veneer.
Jason Bourne has found himself in ‘Groundhog Day’ – he is having the same adventure over and over and over again. The first three Bourne flicks (‘The Bourne Trilogy’ as it is called on the most recent Blu-Ray edition) took the title character’s identity crisis about as far as it could go. In ‘The Bourne Identity’, he has no idea who he is, but with each sequel, he learns more and more about himself. By the end of ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, the search for his identity is over and the character’s storyline reaches a proper conclusion. Gone are the revelations about Bourne and the program he emerged from. But, this movie has to give the character another reason to resurface after all these years. The impetus for the character’s return isn’t convincing and because of this, the film lacks the dramatic center found in the earlier Bourne pictures.
This leads me to the biggest problem of ‘Jason Bourne’ – Jason Bourne himself. This isn’t a character that has felt the effects of the aging process in the last nine years. Nor is there a vulnerability to him. If anything, he is more of a super-soldier than before. As a man without a past in ‘The Bourne Trilogy’, he would engage in violence without knowing why – he didn’t derive any gratification from his actions. Here, it’s participatory – he luxuriates in the vehicular carnage with zero care for civilian life and law enforcement. Any rooting interest I once was possessed for this character went out the window.
Matt Damon and Tommy Lee Jones do exactly what the role requires of them – Damon effectively conveys information to the viewer in a largely wordless performance, and no one plays the world-weary SOB better than Jones. Alicia Vikander who makes every movie better just by being in it is reduced here to a plot device. Greengrass finds a way to turn Vincent Cassel’s asset-character into a liability by taking an intimidating screen presence and having him glower through a sniper scope.
The only actor who comes out of this unscathed is Riz Ahmed as the CEO of a social media giant. There is a sense of desperation to his character’s predicament – this importunateness doesn’t exist elsewhere in ‘Jason Bourne’.
Don’t be fooled by all the yelling, running, fighting, and scowling. This is a case of much ado about nothing. Greengrass, presumably aware that the arc of the Bourne character was complete, was satisfied with hitting the reset button and adhering to an existing format so mechanically with less energy and skill.
I don’t think action purists view Paul Greengrass’ filmography favorably. I’ve long defended his trademark style. In ‘Jason Bourne’, however, I found myself unconvinced that violently shaking the camera was the best way to achieve visual urgency. The cinematographer here is Barry Ackroyd and his visual approach is much more chaotic than Oliver Wood’s work in ‘The Bourne Trilogy’. Christopher Rouse, the editor on all of Greengrass’ films, cuts very quickly – I’d be hard pressed to name a shot that remains onscreen for more than three seconds. To some degree, this style is appropriate. ‘Jason Bourne’ will be very hard to follow if you haven’t seen its predecessors. At the same time, it functions as a table-setting chapter for the next wave of Bourne films, which essentially makes it a teaser for Bourne 6 and beyond. For ‘Jason Bourne’ to be truly satisfying as a whole, I think it needed a filmmaker who was able to orchestrate the big set pieces with more clarity. QED.