Imagine, if you will, our hero, a superspy who just wants to learn the truth. He doesn’t know all of his own history and every time he learns something new, the world around him crumbles just a little bit more. But now, now is his chance to finally get the answers he deserves. All he has to do his meet his contact in the city square. We watch as he approaches. We see the official government forces circling. We see the non-official government forces closing in as well. This time they’re going to get him. There’s simply no way out.
It is actually, potentially, a pretty thrilling scenario and that’s probably why the Jason Bourne movies have used it over and over and over again. Here’s the thing though – they’ve used it over and over and over again. At this point it is moderately less thrilling to see Matt Damon’s Bourne escape yet again, to bring the fight to the nefarious government forces yet again, to uncover buried secrets from his past yet again.
Damon has reteamed with Paul Greengrass for this fourth entry in the Jason Bourne portion of the Bourne franchise (not to be confused with the non-Jason Bourne “Bourne Legacy” portion), and the only reason it works as well as it does is that it’s been the better part of a decade since the last time Damon and Greengrass collaborated on a “Bourne” film. Yes, nearly a decade. It may be hard to believe, but “The Bourne Ultimatum” was released in 2007.
When things start up this time, Bourne has been hiding, keeping out of sight and out of trouble, but it doesn’t take long for Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, reprising her role) to find Bourne and get him in a whole lot of trouble. See, Parsons is now working for non-governmental secret stealers when she finds out some stuff she thinks Bourne might want to know. This puts Bourne in the line of fire of CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), and his protégé, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander).
So, the cat and mouse game begins again, with the CIA trying to kill or capture Bourne and him trying to get to them and learn the secrets of his past and finding out that everything he ever (or perhaps at this point never) believed has been a lie. There are intra-government squabbles, non-government squabbles, and a tech company that does something really and truly ill-defined but on which the CIA wants in and that a lot of the story revolves around.
Are Greengrass and company able to add a new bit to Bourne’s backstory? Sure, but they don’t delve into it in anything resembling compelling fashion. It is only a poor excuse the film requires to get Bourne out of hiding and it doesn’t go beyond that.
“Jason Bourne” is a film that uses the name Snowden on more than one occasion as an attempt to relate its version of cyber-security to our world. It comes off as something of a crutch – the movie doesn’t have to explain what’s happening or why, but instead promises that the results will be worse than Snowden and then moves on.
On the plus side, there’s a great car chase in the movie, and you can see most of it despite the jerky handheld camera and quick cuts. The Bourne franchise helped to launch the current style of choppy, close-up, handheld, action we see on screen, but there are moments here when the moving camera almost feels a parody of itself, particularly during the film’s denouement when it has to pan over in order to situate us at a hospital where the next scene takes place.
Damon is again solid in his role, but he isn’t given a lot to do, and certainly nothing that we haven’t seen him do before. All these years later, Bourne is still a blank slate. Tommy Lee Jones offers up a serviceable generic bad guy corporate spy boss as does Vikander as a green mid-level agency careerist. Truly perplexing is Vincent Cassel’s hitman, known only as the Asset, who has a convoluted backstory that may be worse than Bourne’s. Nobody else, include Stiles and Riz Ahmed (who plays the owner of the tech company the CIA is working with), has much in the way of development. Once Bourne is brought out of hiding things just progress from one ill-conceived, ill-executed plan to capture him to the next.
Sadly, after such a long time gone, Damon and Greengrass make the worst mistake they can with the franchise – they deliver exactly what everyone expects from the moment the film opens to the moment it closes. The only people surprised by any of the twists and turns are the characters and that just isn’t enough.
photo credit: Universal Studios