Review: 'Jason Bourne' is one trip to the franchise well too many for this spy
In every movie in the Bourne series (except for Legacy), there comes that moment. You know the one. Some shadowy government scumbag is convinced they’ve got the drop on Bourne, and they’re celebrating their accomplishment only to have the phone ring or the computer screen come on just in time for Bourne to tell them that he’s looking at them through a sniper’s scope or he’s recorded them threatening to kill the President or he’s got naked pictures of them and a goat, and as they realize just how screwed they are, here comes the Moby on the soundtrack and there goes Bourne, back into the shadows until next time.
The problem is, the charm has definitely faded, and Jason Bourne proves to be one trip too many to the well, lapsing into accidental self-parody in places. There are scenes I dug and a few set-pieces that work, and there’s an overall level of intensity that I like from director Paul Greengrass. Taken as a whole, though, this is very familiar territory, and I just don’t care when the stakes are this low and the violence is this rough. It’s like beating someone with a tire iron because they didn’t cover their mouth when they sneezed. The film never really makes a compelling case for why Jason Bourne should be back in action, or what makes him heroic in any significant way at this point, and that feels like a problem.
When the film starts, Bourne is living in Greece, apparently surviving as a bare-knuckle fighter. It feels like about as generic a place to start with him as possible, and it hints at the larger problem with the character. There is no person at the center of the persona. That could be worth exploring if these movies did more than give Jason one new piece of information per film. In the last movie, he finally learned his real name, David Webb, and it wasn’t really the earth-shattering revelation the film wanted it to be. In this film, there is more information about David Webb and his family history, and it’s moderately interesting, I suppose. But is one more tiny revelation enough to justify all of the running around and the small mountain of dead bodies left behind? It doesn’t feel like it.
Written by Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse and no longer even remotely based on Robert Ludlum’s books, Jason Bourne is kicked off by the return of Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the analyst who grew into a whistleblower over the course of the series. She’s working now with Christian Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer), a sort of Julian-Assange-meets-the-bad-guy-from-Blade-II character, to expose the various black ops including Treadstone that have been the background of the entire series so far. When she hacks the CIA’s mainframe, it kicks off a chain reaction that brings Bourne back from the shadows and puts him on a collision course with both current CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and an unnamed asset (Vincent Cassell) who has his own difficult history with Bourne. Right in the middle of all of this is an ambitious CIA computer expert named Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who plays both sides against the middle for her own benefit.
Aaaaaaaand that’s pretty much it. There are about four big action set pieces, each involving Bourne meeting someone to get information from them, and individually, two of them are pretty solid. But there’s also a sameness to the way they play out. Bourne stalks around, explodes into little bursts of violence, then manages to grab his cookie crumb of information just before he narrowly escapes. The first big sequence is set against the backdrop of a riot in Greece, and the last one is staged all over the strip in Las Vegas, and just in terms of sheer physical mayhem, they’re both impressive. There’s a surprising brutality to much of the violence, which I’m okay with because at least they’re not just shrugging it off. Bourne takes a pretty serious beating over the course of the film, and I like the way Damon leans into the physical side of the performance. He's convincing, and watching him think and fight his way through these scenes, I still buy him.
Tommy Lee Jones seems like he’s perfectly cast here, but it almost feels like casting him was the end of their work on his character. Same thing with Cassell, who is fine as an almost-match for Bourne. Like Damon, Cassell is given very little to play aside from physical aggression, and if they wanted to make a thematic point about how hollowed out these men are as a result of being turned into weapons, then I’d be excited to see them explore that. Instead, they just brush off the way it almost feels like they’re just robots sitting in a storage closet until the moment they’re called into action, and it’s a shame. It just makes it feel instead like Greengrass had no interest in showing us how these men live and function when they’re not actively trying to kill someone. The bare-knuckle sequence they’ve shown in every trailer is a throw-away. He punches one dude, and then he goes home. We’ve seen the troubled hero hiding out and fighting before, like with Rambo, and it’s almost silly at this point. There has to be a better way to define character for someone like Bourne, but this film feels like it takes the easy way out at every turn.
It sounds like I’m heavily negative, but that’s not the case. More than anything, I walked out indifferent, which is not what I expected. I think Paul Greengrass is a savagely smart filmmaker, and Matt Damon has a strong social conscience that collides nicely with his sense of what will or won’t be entertaining. When they first started talking about returning to this series, they mentioned how much the landscape has changed since their last outing with this character. And it’s true… you only have to look at the way this week’s DNC e-mail dump is playing out to see how much things have changed in the wake of Wikileaks and Anonymous and Edward Snowden. I would have loved it if this film had found a great smart way to grapple with the difficult moral issues at the heart of our current struggles to define privacy and maintain it, but instead, it all comes back to Jason Bourne finding one more tiny piece of information about his identity. I’m always happy to see Gregg Henry show up in a film, but his appearance doesn’t negate what a missed opportunity this feels like in the end.
Oh… and the shaky-cam? It’s a little better this time, but anyone who is overly susceptible to motion sickness should be forewarned. Greengrass still believes that conveying a sense of frantic confusion is more important than showing off the admittedly impressive action that he’s staging, a frustration for someone like me who loves action cinema of all stripes.
Jason Bourne is in theaters this Friday.