As Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass return to the franchise, reinventing Bourne's past comes at a price
When Jason Bourne burst on the scene in 2002, floating in the Mediterranean without his memory, he wiped the slate on what we knew of the spy franchise. A new identity and cinematic understanding of who and what a spook is was forged by Matt Damon, showing us a global superspy who could punch his way out of any situation. Here was a secret agent who emphasised the secret. No flashy watches, no conspicuous supercars, no multiple sexual partners. Double entendres? Not a single one.
That Jason Bourne redefined espionage cinema is an understatement. But a trickier question to answer is whether he kicked off a franchise. The Damon trilogy, with the latter two uniting the actor with his now semi-regular collaborator Paul Greengrass, neatly tied up a thumping trio. Bourne had lost his memory, exposed the CIA’s more questionable operations, atoned for his sins, and managed to keep so far off the grid that he’s likely the only person on the planet yet to come across a news story about Pokémon Go.
Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander as CIA agents on the hunt for Bourne [Universal]
Movie rights of literary creations work on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, meaning when Damon showed no interest in returning to filming in back alleys of European capitals, Jeremy Renner replaced him. Not quite The Bourne Desperation some critics and fans would have you believe, Renner’s run as Aaron Cross, another CIA-trained assassin left out in the cold, could not shake off the standing of the previous films. A serviceable sequel, albeit with a few thrilling action pieces, The Bourne Legacy was more brawn than the brain fans had come to suspect. It bore the brunt of bad reviews, and only brought home half the box office.
Which is how we find ourselves, almost a decade after he last disappeared, with Damon and Greengrass returning to the fray. Gone are the nouns, this is solely the Jason Bourne show, and that’s where the problems lie.
Bourne is now living a life of underground MMA fighting mixed with PTSD flashbacks of the plot lines the casual viewer needs to remember. Whether or not the best way to keep hidden from government agencies just waiting for a slip-up is to repeatedly take part in bare-knuckle boxing matches notwithstanding, the intervening years have done nothing to dull Bourne’s combat skills, only taking a beating when he wants to forget the recollections that plague him.
Also back is Julia Stiles as former Langley analyst Nicky Parsons, meaning business now she’s rid of her ‘The Rachel’ haircut and poking illegally through the CIA‘s servers. In a breach that’s “worse than Snowden,” she uncovers some details related to a relation of Bourne, kicking off a chain reaction that will see the taciturn spook pulled back into the spy game for which he no longer knows the rules. Algorithms predict his every move, facial recognition software seeks out his every hiding place, and nobody is quite who they seem.
Now a target for Alicia Vikander’s digital operative and a never gruffer Tommy Lee Jones as CIA Director Robert Dewey, Bourne will have to unravel a mystery while keeping one step ahead of Vincent Cassel’s ‘The Asset’, a shady contract killer so shady the first time we see him he’s watching the TV with the lights off. In the mix also comes British actor Riz Ahmed as Aaron Kalloor, a Zuckerberg stand-in, whose Silicon Valley tech giant promises his shareholders that “Privacy is freedom,” while privately leveraging that freedom for something else.
And all of that makes for entertaining and closely plotted thrills, satisfying if a little joyless. The problem is that Jason Bourne is a cipher, a personality-less punch bag. The closest we’ve gotten to character development in the past has been ingenuity. You marvel at his precision with a ball-point pen, his flair at lighting fires, his talent for fighting his way out of any scrape. Now, 14 years after he lost his memory, he’s lost his way. And as a solitary figure, the invention of a yet another facet of his past to ground the action with some sort of emotional wallop is all a bit less Threadstone and more threadbare.
But that’s not to say that Jason Bourne doesn’t zip along at a thrilling pace. The action sequences are directed with confidence and serve as an excellent reminder that perhaps the true MVP of the Greengrass/Damon combo might well be film editor Christopher Rouse. The car chases and close combat scenes sizzle on screen, but that Rouse can raise the tension to white knuckle just while people walk around train stations and up stairwells is what lingers. Shame then, that the story surrounding the amnesiac spy is so forgettable.
Jason Bourne (12A) gets a limited release on Wednesday and comes out nationwide on Friday, July 29th.