Were we as a culture eager for another Jason Bourne movie? It’s been nine years since Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass teamed up for The Bourne Ultimatum, which was supposedly the last word on the amnesiac CIA assassin who wants to find out who he really is and what was done to him.
The promise of Damon and Greengrass reuniting is that they had something new to say, a fresh story to tell with Bourne. With all that’s happened in the world during the past nine years — notably the Edward Snowden NSA leak, uprisings in the Middle East and terrorist attacks throughout Europe — a Jason Bourne movie could conceivably feel as vital as ever. That had to be what pulled star and director back to the character after initially saying they had no more stories to tell. Right?
Unfortunately, Jason Bourne demonstrates that Damon and Greengrass didn’t really have anything fresh to offer in their third trip with the character. The movie feels more like the two of them just wanted to make a Bourne movie again. And that’s fine. Bourne is a character many people enjoy, a spy who’s less superheroic and more realistic than James Bond. Also, these movies scratch that conspiracy itch with their secret operations devoted to creating enhanced agents willing to kill ruthlessly and cover their tracks for the CIA.
What propelled Bourne through three previous movies was the need to recover his memories, remember his identity and take down the people that did this to him. But after exposing the Treadstone and Blackbriar operations that created agents like him, what more was there to do? Bourne could seemingly attempt to pick up the pieces of his former life as David Webb and try to live a normal existence. Going to a tropical island, drinking out of coconuts well into old age, and trying to forget all that he discovered appeared to be the next feasible step for him.
Maybe that’s the point of Jason Bourne, that someone who’s been through what he has can never fully get away from it. He can’t enjoy life while carrying the memories of the terrible things he’s done, the nearly three dozen people he’s killed. Deep down, Bourne (who apparently has no interest in being David Webb again, since he’s the person who volunteered for the Treadstone program to begin with) feels he should be punished. So instead of hiding in paradise, Bourne is trying to dull himself with pain. Or maybe he figures hurting people is the only thing he’s really good at. Thus, he makes a living (presumably) as an underground fighter in Greece, knocking out bald, surly, overly muscled men — often with one punch. Perhaps he allows himself to take more of a beating when he feels he truly deserves it.
The greater point — one that Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse should have emphasized more — is that the CIA and other shadowy government agencies are always going to try and gain an advantage over their adversaries. Bourne and former operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) can pull Treadstone and Blackbrier out of the soil, and let their roots dry out in the sun. But another operation is always going to grow, because a CIA director like Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) always wants to create a better weapon for the agency and perhaps leave a legacy. Cut off one head, two more shall take its place. Hail Hydra! Oh, wait — wrong movie franchise.
What could have made this story more intriguing is that Dewey has someone else working under him at the CIA who has ambitions on his job, and delusions that she can convince Bourne to come back to the agency. Academy Award winning actress Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) seems like an ideal choice to play such a role, someone who is outwardly cold and focused on doing her job.
Yet underneath, analyst Heather Lee has grander plans in mind. Or is she just a disgruntled employee who hates her boss? As she’s written, it’s a bit hard to tell what her motivations are. And Vikander — one of our best current actresses — is somewhat wasted because of it. That is, unless the idea really was for her to glower joylessly throughout the film, staring at computer screens and code, while trying to manipulate Bourne over the phone.
Another subplot in the film should have truly resonated, but felt more like a plot device to get the story to Las Vegas for the climactic set piece. Dewey is secretly working with Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed, The Night Of), a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in who’s the founder and whiz-kid CEO behind the world’s largest social network, Deep Dream. (What a terrible name for an online brand. Unless you’ve created a new mattress. Although when you consider how many of us try to convey a life or create a persona through our social media profiles, maybe it’s not that far off.) Kalloor’s pervasive social network is the delivery system for Dewey’s new operation called Iron Hand, which is a global surveillance program.
Greengrass doesn’t dwell on this too much, perhaps to avoid being preachy to the audience about how much of themselves they turn over online. Showing people that they’re doing much of the CIA’s work for them is a point that might be worth noting. But this is a Jason Bourne movie, so we do need some car chases and action. Greengrass doesn’t disappoint there, and has even eased off on some of the shaky camera work that left some viewers nauseous in his two previous Bourne films.
The story also provides a physical adversary for Bourne, so that he’s not just talking to his enemies over the phone. (Jones can only be so menacing sitting at his computer with a headset in his den.) Dewey employs The Asset (Vincent Cassel), an assassin who carries out all of his black ops and is the guy tasked with taking out Bourne. As it turns out, The Asset also holds a personal grudge toward Bourne. By exposing Blackbrier to the public and releasing classified documents over the internet, his cover is blown, which results in him being captured and tortured for two years in Syria.
Now that would have been something to throw in Bourne’s face. Look at the consequences of what you did. Maybe Bourne would want to become a fisherman in Antarctica after that. But rather than a talky confrontation, we get a physical one, highlighted by a ridiculous car chase through Las Vegas involving an armored SWAT truck. Judging by some of the cuts in the final product, some of that action didn’t quite go the way Greengrass had imagined, resulting in some stunts that aren’t quite as spectacular or clear as they could have been.
Though it’s fun to see Damon play Bourne again, watching him effortlessly elude CIA agents and satellite surveillance, and take out bad guys with some lethal punches and chokeholds, Jason Bourne doesn’t feel new enough to be worthwhile. Greengrass is taking Bourne through familiar beats, bringing back some familiar characters while introducing new ones, but ultimately telling the same story. What made the previous three Bourne movies — especially The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum — is that they weren’t espionage-thriller-by-numbers. With nothing new to say, Greengrass, Damon and the CIA should just let Jason Bourne stay in hiding.