Jason Bourne (2016)

The Bourne Trilogy is one of those rare feats where the studio managed to nail all three films and gave the series a satisfying if slightly subversive ending.  Unfortunately, as Hollywood is prone to do, Universal Pictures couldn’t leave well enough alone, and decided to continue the franchise even when star Matt Damon decided he was done with the series.  2012 saw the release of The Bourne Legacy, a film starring Jeremy Renner that felt like someone had gone Hannibal Lecter on the Bourne movies, wearing its face as a mask to look like a Bourne movie, but never truly feeling quite like a Bourne movie.  Of course, Damon eventually warmed up to the idea of reprising the character, and director Paul Greengrass warmed to the idea of directing another Bourne movie, and that is how we have arrived at the 5th installment of the Bourne franchise, Jason Bourne.  Unfortunately, Jason Bourne may have been better off staying in the shadows instead of surfacing after all of these years.

The film is set in the present day world, with the CIA once again on the trail of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) when he resurfaces in Greece after being off the grid for years.  Turns out Nicky Parson, formerly of the CIA, is now working for a Wikileaks-like operation and hacks the CIA database and discovers new information relating to Bourne and his recruitment for the Treadstone program, which turned him into the trained killer he would become.  Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), a young, ambitious analyst who heads the CIA’s Cyber Ops Division, doggedly pursues Nicky’s whereabouts to locate Bourne.  This exposed information puts CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) on high alert as it throws an unexpected twist into a secret agreement between the CIA and a popular social media platform called Deep Dream and its founder, Aaron Kallor (Riz Ahmed).  Dewey unleashes an asset (Vincent Cassel) with an ax to grind against Bourne, leading to cat and mouse games in Greece, Berlin, and eventually Las Vegas as Bourne seeks answers to why his father’s name is attached to documents regarding his recruitment.

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Jason Bourne is nearly everything we have come to expect in a Bourne movie.  The story moves with a briskness that is aided by the authorities almost constantly breathing down Bourne’s neck as he is having rushed conversations with various people and then engaging in fights or chases to elude and evade would-be captors or assassins.  All of the fighting is tightly framed and filmed in the typical Bourne shaky cam style where it’s sometimes difficult to see who is throwing what punch.  People in Washington watch video feeds of events happening in real time in another part of the world as their operatives try to capture Bourne.

I say nearly everything is there because a compelling, consistent story is not quite there.  The story this film tells of involving data hacks and the private data of social media users being secretly handed over to the CIA is something that has already been done in several other places already and is about 15% less timely than it thinks it is.  It’s also flimsy and highly unlikely that the head of the CIA would meet directly with someone like Ahmed’s Kallor.  This new Bourne film is bringing very little new to the table.  While none of the external story was particularly groundbreaking in the previous Bourne films, they didn’t feel like their main purpose for being was mainly to be pop culture commentary of current events.

What was always at the heart of the original three Bourne films was the internal story of Jason Bourne himself.  Initially a character struggling with amnesia and then struggling to remember his past and his origins, that story was told in the first three films and grounded the films in a personal experience in an outrageous action film.  That internal struggle is replaced by a simple retconning of his motives for volunteering for Treadstone, throwing his internal struggle into some kind of chaos.  At least, the film is trying to imply this.  It’s impossible to really know as Matt Damon’s portrayal of Jason Bourne has become increasingly stoic, reserved, and almost monosyllabic compared to the character we were introduced to in The Bourne Identity.  I watched the Honest Trailer of the Bourne Movies on YouTube and was shocked by how talkative he was in the first film.  He is about as talkative here as Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.  Most of this film is spent in a close-up of Damon’s face as he reads files, hotwires a circuit board, or aims a gun at someone.  It is a mostly expressionless performance.  As the original film was directed by Doug Liman, I’m curious to go back and see if the other films helmed by Greengrass also have Bourne being this withdrawn.  I know he is wrestling with some demons, but this films feels less personal than the others.

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Overall, the supporting cast around Damon is mostly good but doesn’t quite live up to the performances of Chris Cooper, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, or David Strathairn.  I actually liked Julia Stiles’ character Nicky, thinking they used her well and made her a character that always seemed like there was more to her overall story than we were ever given.  Here, though, Stiles proves to be a pretty weak link, as she is given a scene that requires a data dump through exposition and she is just straining to make it sound believable.  Tommy Lee Jones brings the authoritarian gravitas required for his role, but at times he feels like he is going through the motions.  Vincent Cassel is a worthy name to add to the list of physical adversaries in these films, joining Clive Owen, Karl Urban, and others.  It’s too bad that they go a step too far in implicating Cassel character into the retcon job.  Vikander is a hot commodity in Hollywood, having enjoyed a hot streak in 2015 that culminated in an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  She brings potential new government foil to play opposite Bourne for possible future films, but her American accent was surprisingly distracting because I’ve heard her do a far better one in other films.

Despite having nearly a decade between the last time they spent with this character, Greengrass and Damon could not come up with a better plot than one that is a little dated and that uses threads that have been used in several other films.  They employ some retconning to try and manage some kind of personal stakes to justify why they’ve brought the Jason Bourne character back nine years later, but it doesn’t quite live up to the internal conflict of the previous Damon-led films.  While all of the Bourne films follow a specific formula and basic plot structure, this was the first one where it really became noticeable and felt formulaic.  I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I was watching a band get back together for a reunion tour and they’re just playing their hits, but it’s not quite like it was when they were in their prime.  Time and probably box office numbers will tell if there is another Bourne film in the future.  If there is, let’s hope they find a more compelling reason to make it.  And maybe involve Tony Gilroy in the writing process.

Jason Bourne 5

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

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