Jason Bourne Is Back

July 29, 2016

Jason Bourne reunites Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass about a decade after their film The Bourne Supremacy. By this time they’re both old pros, which is both good and bad: good because the learning curve is behind them and bad because they seem on autopilot for Jason Bourne, and the end result isn’t so much bad as it is stale.

To be fair, Damon’s Bourne has always been a low-key, subdued action hero. He is not a James Bond style super agent but instead is often the hunted rather than the hunter. His goals are less about stopping super-villains from destroying the world and more personal: Understanding his true identity and unlocking the secrets of his past, buried by a faulty memory and/or nefarious methods.

The fundamental problem with Jason Bourne as a character is that his primary motivation is to discover or remember who he was–and that has apparently happened because at the beginning of Jason Bourne he says he remembers everything. That’s great for him, but a hero must have a complication to overcome, and thus the screenwriters must find another mystery from Bourne’s past to fill the following two hours.

This time it’s his father’s role in the top-secret CIA project that turned him into a killer–a job he may or may not have willingly signed up for. (Now that he figured that out at the end of this film, I’m dreading what Bourne’s next mystery will be as the writers must dig ever deeper into his past: Finding his lost dog? Discovering why the girl he had a crush on in eighth grade refused to go out with him? How many times can you draw from the same well to motivate a hero whose goal is to remember his past?)

The actors are generally good and tread familiar territory. Damon manages to maintain his magnetism as Bourne and Vincent Cassel is good as an assassin known as The Asset, who tracks Bourne for the CIA amid globe-trotting cloak-and-dagger intrigue involving stolen information. Amid the gunfire, crowd scenes, and chases there’s a subplot about a young tech guru whose wildly popular (if largely ambiguous but presumably Facebook-like) social media app (named “Deep Dream”) is being used for CIA surveillance–or would be if director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) gets his way. This is of course a nod to real-world privacy concerns expressed by Edward Snowden and others, helping keep the film topical. Another subplot involves a new CIA recruit (Alicia Vikander) whose loyalties are murky.

The scenery and acting are fine, though much of Jason Bourne is by-the-numbers thriller fare, including the obligatory “Badass Briefing,” in which important-looking people exchange biographical exposition (usually with the help of instantly-available, high-tech computer screen visuals, charts, photographs, etc.) about the subjects of their search. It’s a laundry list explaining why their bad guy is worth the trouble of mobilizing every resource, usually making the person out to be a cross between James Bond and Superman: they can crack computer codes in minutes, instantly change their appearance to be anything from a Russian wrestler to an Asian toddler, and create a bomb using only a paperclip and a damp paper towel.

The action sequences–of which there are many, this being the Bourne franchise–are well done. The stuntwork in the Bourne films has always been one of its charms: unlike many action films whose actors spend half their shooting days in front of a green screen, it’s less reliant on computer-generated special effects than old school practical effects and a small army of stunt professionals and drivers.

Jason Bourne is nothing if not exhausting, a series of fight scenes and chase sequences in various camera-friendly locales (London, Rome, Athens, Las Vegas). There are so many car crashes that they become numbing after a while. The action is usually coherent but sometimes not-a victim of director Greengrass’s decision to eschew a Steadicam in favor of near Blair Witch-style shaky cameras. The quick cuts don’t help much either.

There are also plot problems. Bourne is a world-class spy and assassin (so much so that his name is often spoken in hushed whispers of reverence) but he makes rookie mistakes that even I recognize. For example he is given a thumb drive with important information on it and proceeds to violate spycraft 101. Now, I’m no counter-espionage expert (as far as you know), but if I wanted to find out what was on it, and knew I was being tracked by one of the most sophisticated surveillance organizations in the world, I’d simply buy (or steal) a laptop, go to a safe place, and open the file. Instead Bourne inexplicably breaks into the home of a former friend and fellow spy, waits for the man to arrive, gives him the drive, and has him open it on his computer which is of course connected to the internet and thus gives the CIA a chance to find and trace him. Why would Bourne make such an obvious error? To keep the plot moving, of course.

But Bourne isn’t alone in suddenly going from James Bond to Inspector Clouseau in three seconds; his adversary The Asset does exactly the same thing at the end of a rooftop chase. In escaping his would-be killer, Bourne falls about 30 feet and lies face down on the pavement below, motionless and clearly either stunned, unconscious, or dead. The Asset, armed with a gun and a grudge, could have easily fired two or three bullets into our prone, motionless hero from the rooftop above, fulfilling his mission (and ending the movie). Instead he turns around and goes downstairs to finish him off at close range-by which time (and this is no spoiler) Bourne is gone and the chase continues.

I understand the narrative need to make the action fit the three-act structure, but this is simply lazy screenwriting. The scenes should flow organically from each other and the characters should be consistent. Obviously even super-spies slip up now and then, but these are not mistakes, they are conscious, willful choices made by the characters that are totally out of character.

Two past characters from the Bourne series die (I won’t say which ones and spoil any surprises, though either or both of them could easily appear later in this time-hopping franchise). Probably the best one-word adjective to describe Jason Bourne is serviceable: It’s neither bad nor good, neither a waste of time nor spectacular. It hit all the checkmarks in the formula to please many fans of the franchise. Those looking for a fresh take on the series will have to wait.