“I discovered in my heart I didn’t have another one in me,” said director Paul Greengrass after making 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, and his star Matt Damon, the face of the Bourne franchise, echoed that sentiment, declaring “We have ridden that horse as far as we can.”
That kind of “ultimatum,” however, is difficult to hold to in an atmosphere in which huge amounts of money are to be made. You might remember Sean Connery’s comeback stint as .007 in the aptly named Never Say Never Again. In this case, after the limp box office showing of the non-Damon, non-Greengrass Bourne Legacy of 2012, the director and star apparently decided that maybe there was life in the old horse yet, and decided that if the right script came along they might in fact find in their hearts that there was another film in them.
That script came from Christopher Rouse, Greengrass’s longtime editor (and an Oscar winner in that category for The Bourne Ultimatum), and Greengrass himself. Unfortunately, it is a screenplay by and for an editor, and as a result contains perhaps three pages of dialogue that sketchily outlines what passes as a story, but is really just an excuse to provide a context for action scenes of great editorial virtuoso. The result is a film that sacrifices plot, character, language and theme to the god of jerky hand-held camera effects, quick cuts and action merely for the sake of action. If that’s what you want to see, then this should be the highlight of your summer.
The plot, such as it is, begins with Bourne, trying to live off the grid, engaged in some sort of self-punishing fight club activity, is approached by his erstwhile colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). Nicky, now actively trying to undermine the Agency has penetrated CIA files and discovered that new CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones at his curmudgeonliest) is building some new shadow government, the nature of which is never clear but involves CIA access to online data and the cooperation of social media mogul Aaron Kalloor (played convincingly and sympathetically by Riz Ahmed, star of the current HBO series The Night Of). But Nicky also has new information about the death of Bourne’s father, about whom he remembers only snatches—information that implicates the Agency itself.
So, we have Bourne trying to drop out but a corrupt CIA director trying to kill him anyway, Bourne’s amnesia spurring him to find out the truth of his past, a dangerous European assassin gunning for him (this time a deadly agent known only as the Asset, played by Vincent Cassel), an overreaching CIA “Black Ops” program that ensures the sacrifice of freedom and privacy to supposed “security” and, of course, a powerful CIA official with an agenda of her own (Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander taking over Joan Allen’s accustomed role) who wants to bring Bourne in rather than killing him. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pretty much the plot of the first three Bourne movies, only this time a lot less time and effort have been spent on getting us to care about the story. Perhaps Greengrass assumed that if you cared about the plot last time, you’ll care about it this time if he just sketches it out for you.
What plot there is is just an excuse for what the film is really about, which is action scenes of car and motorcycle chases and a lot of shooting people and beating them up. Such scenes are orchestrated beautifully to be sure, with Rouse’s patented shaky hand-held camera shots, and his quick cuts that become dizzyingly frenetic as the action moves toward its climax. These techniques won him the Academy Award nine years ago for The Bourne Ultimatum (who can forget the intensity of that film’s pivotal scene in Waterloo Station?), and the reasoning here seems to have been, if a little of this is good, a lot of it must be a lot better. And so there are three memorable action scenes in Jason Bourne: the first is a riveting chase through the streets of Athens during a huge protest against Greek austerity measures in the wake of economic crisis. The second is a cat-and-mouse attempt to corner and kill Bourne in London. The third and last, and most over-the-top, is a chaotic symphony of chase and crash through the streets of Las Vegas. All of these last a long time. A long, long time. And it’s usually pretty hard to tell what’s going on because the cuts happen so quickly. But the truth is, I kept dozing off, because the flashing lights on the screen were ultimately hypnotizing rather than energizing. And I hadn’t been given much reason to care about any of it.
There is an assumption in the film that we already care about Bourne and his troubles, and that we already hate the CIA for all the bad stuff it’s been doing, so there’s no particular reason to delve into Bourne’s character, or Dewey’s. Why does Vikander’s character do what she does? Her motivation is never clarified—maybe she’s just ambitious, as the end of the film suggests, but that doesn’t seem enough to explain her. And the most complex character in the film, Ahmed’s Internet mogul, doesn’t give us much of a chance to understand or sympathize with him—nor does the film explore the thorny and important question that it raises about freedom of information and security of privacy in cyberspace—it merely suggests there is a problem and then substitutes kickass action for reasoned discourse.
What we get is one chase scene after another, several minutes of watching people looking at computer screens, even more minutes cutting between characters who are walking purposefully here and there, and Bourne beating people up (contrasting with the Asset, who just shoots people who happen to be anywhere in his vicinity). The Bourne franchise is better than this. Unfortunately, this installment isn’t. If you want action, go see Star Trek this weekend. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.