When Matt Damon last played amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne in 2007 the very first iPhone had just come out and been hacked by a 17-year-old. Barack Obama was still a year away from the presidency, and Robert Downey, Jr. was busy filming a little movie called Iron Man, which hardly anyone seemed to be looking forward to. Osama Bin laden was still alive, and O.J. Simpson was still a free man. Netflix had just started streaming movies and TV shows over the internet, and Hulu launched later that year. Facebook celebrated its 3-year anniversary whereas Twitter was barely a year old. Monster.com lost the personal information of 1.3 million users to a cyber attack, and Google started tracking internet searches to IP addresses and keeping the information stored for 18-24 months as a potential resource for law enforcers.
The world was changing, and the modern anxieties which the Bourne franchise spoke to would soon fade. This franchise, started by Doug Liman with Bourne Identity and continued by Paul Greengrass with Supremacy and Ultimatum, dissected America’s post 9/11 foreign policy and assaulted us with visceral and kinetic action, not always to everyone’s liking. Still, Jason Bourne was a James Bond for the Bush era, misled by a morally bankrupt government and forever chasing the trails left behind by the Cheney and Rumsfeld-esque figures of the world.
In the end, though, the true bogeyman who made Jason Bourne was Jason Bourne himself since it turned out he volunteered for the spy program which made him into a finely tuned killing machine. He wasn’t a victim at all. What a truly sobering, if anti-climactic note to go out on. Bourne was left to ponder the moral ramifications of this revelation, and Ultimatum‘s final shot implied the potential, however slight, for a happy ending down the road with Bourne’s erstwhile colleague and possibly former lover Nicky (Julia Stiles).
However, in Hollywood a profitable IP is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no profitable IP ever dies (even when it ceases being profitable because if you wait long enough you can revive it and market it on nostalgia). Universal tried a spin-off franchise centered around Jeremy Renner. It didn’t take. So, here’s Jason Bourne offering up original recipe Bourne, with Damon, Geengrass (and his shaky cam) and Stiles all returning.
New additions include an ambitious, young CIA analyst (Alicia Vikander), the franchise specialty of a gumpy old white guy with secrets to hide (Tommy Lee Jones) and a rival agent with an axe to grind (Vincent Cassel, only ever referred to as “Asset”). The Swedish-born Vikander, so good in Ex Machina, sounds and behaves like, well a Swedish-born actress seriously struggling to adopt a deathly serious American accent and attitude. Lee Jones, on the other hand, could do this kind of role in his sleep. His increasingly weathered-looking face hammers home the generational divide at the heart of the internal power struggle going on behind the CIA doors, with Vikander lobbying to re-recruit Bourne and Jones aiming to bring him down. Cassel similarly wants him dead, just for different reasons.
What proceeds plays out like a greatest hits package, ticking off all the boxes a Bourne film must have, as pointed out by HonestTrailers: “Bourne tries to figure out who made him who he is, has a cool car chase and runs from a control room full of people on computers, does his signature move – the ole ‘come alone, slip away’.” Plus, people say “asset” more than they ever possibly should, there are a couple of old ass computer monitors, one key moment of tactical monacle-ing (see below picture from an earlier Bourne movie for example ) and the camerawork sometimes feel like “someone strapped a GoPro to a meth head.”
At least this time hey shake up the typical order of things a little bit. Either way, the film isn’t necessarily to be faulted for adhering to a formula. All of the Jason Bourne movies do that. The difference is those films felt smart, clever and grounded in ways they didn’t actually have to be. They trusted you to keep up with all of the twists, and even when we you lost you could latch on to the central journey of a man in search of the truth. As Greengrass told Vox about the appeal of the films, “It’s the story that people find in a character that people really love and find wildly entertaining. He’s always on a mission to find his identity, and people will always be there trying to stop him, so you always know there’s going to be great action and a great character.”
Jason Bourne, on the other hand, is a dumb movie, twisting itself in knots to give Jason a “This time it’s personal!” motivation. To be clear, it is not a poorly made film, at least not if you are already a fan of Greengrass’signature style. If so, your heart will beat a little faster as the film goes from one remarkably tense sequence to another, most notably an early setpiece in a Greek city in the midst of a political revolt. Damon only has 45 lines, but that’s usually all he needs, turning a simple “What’s wrong?” into a practical soliloquy when he reunites with a clearly unnerved Nicky (who is seriously, seriously ill-served by this movie). However, it’s all in service to an unworthy story, one which attempts to comment on the global surveillance complex but has nothing overly interesting to say and flails about to answer unasked questions about Jason’s past.
As Robbie Collin said in his review for BBC Radio 4:
[Greengrass and Damon] want to explore the way in which Bourne would fit in the world now, which, of course, has changed enormously since The Bourne Ultimatum. You’ve got the idea that there’s Edward Snowden data dumps of sensitive info. You’ve got social media, which didn’t exist in 2007 the way it does now. You’ve got the general populace feeling unsafe in different ways than they did in 2007. What [Jason Bourne] doesn’t do, though, is use all of these different things to make a film which feels entirely of this moment.
Perhaps real life has simply robbed the story of some of its potency. The reality of Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal as well as the FBI’s recent attempts to strong arm Apples is already scarier than the fiction of Jason Bourne.
I actually saw the film with some family members, and we had dinner afterward. One person didn’t quite understand what exactly was going on with a social media company tangled up Lee Jones’ big secret CIA operation. Another person emphatically stated the film [spoiler] should not have [spoiler], and we all agreed. That one moment during the Las Vegas car chase scene where the one car lands on top of the other one was a group favorite, and we paused a moment to commend the efforts of the stunt men and women. In short, they all seemed to really like the movie, a reminder that not everyone is as critical as me. Some people just want to watch a perfectly diverting movie, Jason Bourne is certainly that. However, it also feels unnecessary, not quite up to the task of continuing Jason’s story. But, hey, that Moby-penned theme song is still super fun to listen to over the closing credits.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In a summer in which the bar for live-action blockbusters has been set to embarrassing lows, Jason Bourne stands out by virtue of the fact that it’s a perfectly competent action movie. However, in the years to come when a new generations stumbles upon the Bourne movies they’d be better off treating it as a trilogy which ended at The Bourne Ultimatum. Compared to those earlier films, Jason Bourne feels, at best, redundant, and, at worst, an insult to some of the braver choices they made in Ultimatum.