After almost a decade off the grid, Jason Bourne has returned in a film titled, somewhat unimaginatively, Jason Bourne.
No identities, supremacies, ultimatums, or legacies; just the man himself, played once again by Matt Damon. With Paul Greengrass back directing, too, it’s almost like he never went away. Not that that’s entirely a good thing. When the amnesiac super-spy first appeared in the Bourne Identity back in 2002, he was the perfect avatar for post 9/11 anxieties: under attack from unknown foes, trying to uncover his own sins.
Even so, a kid born when The Bourne Supremacy was released is now old enough to see the latest film unaccompanied — it’s a 12A. Where does the character’s relevance lie now, post Bin Laden, post Snowden?
Bare-knuckle boxing for a living, Bourne is draw back into the world of espionage by former ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles); finding himself with a flash-drive of government secrets, including a revelation about his own past. Jason Bourne’s tagline is “You Know His Name”, but there’s still more to learn about his backstory. With the series’ screenwriter/Bourne Legacy director Tony Gilroy MIA, this film seems to have been written almost to spec by Greengrass and editor Michael Rouse.
In pursuit of Bourne is CIA director Robert Dewey, the latest in a long line of craggy old white guys — played in this case by craggiest old white guy Tommy Lee Jones — who — shock horror — may have private reasons to want him dealt with. To this end, Dewey has activated The Asset (the reliably hawkish Vincent Cassel); continuing the series trend of character actor as anonymous assassin. Meanwhile, Dewey’s protege, Cyber Ops expert Heather Lee (golden-skinned ice queen Alicia Vikander), views Bourne’s resurgence as a chance to prove herself.
There is, at least, a topical spin. While Operation Blackbriar and Operation Treadstone were about covert assassination, the name of the game here is surveillance. Tech guru Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), founder of social media giant Deep Dream, is struggling with his conscience, or at least the risk of, having installed a backdoor into his new Google+ analogue.
On the other side there’s Christian Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer), a blue-eyed, bald-headed privacy fanatic who’s a floppy white mop away from being Julia Assange. He even tells a rather unimpressed Bourne that, “We both want to take down corrupt institutions that control society.”
Jason Bourne, though — both film and character — are not interested in taking sides. There are terse statements about the balance between personal privacy and public security, the new vanguard taking over from the older echelon within the intelligence services, even the cost of leaking, but there’s no real attempt to find drama within them. Instead, there’s the usual quotient of travel, car chases, and hitting people, but it all feels somewhat like just going through the motions. The supposed unspoken threat — the specter of terrorism — barely merits a mention.
True, an early sequence set during a riot in Athens feels ripped from the newsfeed — masked agitators hurling Molotov cocktails, facing off against riot police amid a yellow sea of teargas — but it’s just a backdrop to some well-orchestrated, if slightly inorganic, action.
There’s another on Paddington Bridge that seems straight from the series handbook, and somewhat over-reliant on people spotting each other in a throng. The film’s climax, meanwhile, set in Vegas, resembles nothing so much as an automotive Con Air. Greengrass’ usual bag of shaky-cam tricks is in play, aided by the same gritty, “European-style” cinematography, but the self-contained, pseudo-realism is gone; replaced with slightly more orchestrated bang and boom. There’s a plummet from a roof that’s borderline delirious in it’s reliance on CGI. All of this still exhilarating, but Bourne‘s not as fleet-footed as once it was
Still, for all their obsession with uncovering the truth, the series doesn’t seem to have learned much. Bourne remains a cipher who, whether avenging the death of a loved one or delving into his own past, is only as interesting in the film in which he’s appearing. Damon has acquired a certain watchful muscularity — in a word, he’s hench —but isn’t enough that Bourne’s always two steps ahead of everyone else without introducing some sort of predestination into all of it?
You delve too deep into a mythology, you revise too often, and suddenly you’re in X-Files territory. Nothing matters when there is no objective final truth, which seems to be the danger here.
The Bourne films have always been continuity to heavy — this one opens with a murder montage from original trilogy — but this seems to just be going over the same old ground. When Nicky hacks into the CIA and comes across a folder helpfully labelled ‘Black Ops’, its contents, also helpfully numbered, serve as a shorthand for the formulaic nature of what is now, let’s face it, the Bourne franchise. We’ve been doing this, on and off, for fourteen years now. This is Bourne as we knew it, but not as we loved it, and the general ambiguity is starting to pall.
In drawing out a great trilogy, Jason Bourne reduces it to formula. Open-ended as it is, this promises to be the start of a perfectly competent action thriller franchise. If it wants to be more than that, though, Bourne — both series and character — is going to have to take a stand on something more than its own history, more than survival and revenge.
From driving invisible Astons through ice palaces back in 2002, James Bond reclaimed its relevance — albeit temporarily — by committing to a story arc. Maybe Bourne should think about settling down, too.