Jason Bourne Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
The Bourne franchise was one of the defining action franchises of the last decade, introducing a grittier, more political tone and a chaotic ‘shaky cam’ style of filmmaking that influenced an entire genre, from Bond movies to superhero films. Yet since 2007’s trilogy-concluding The Bourne Ultimatum, the franchise has gone quiet, with only the mediocre and quickly forgotten spin-off Legacy to tide fans over, so the return of dream team Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass seemed like a pretty major event; one that could revitalise a franchise that has been eclipsed in recent years by newer names. Does the return of Jason Bourne match up to that critically acclaimed original trilogy?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jason Bourne can’t come close to really matching its predecessors. It’s easily the weakest of the Damon Bourne movies, failing to really add much of a spark to the franchise’s well-worn formula. It’s more or less content to play out familiar action and character beats in a recognisable sequence, leaning on what’s known to work rather than taking a leap of faith with riskier new concepts. That said, Jason Bourne is still an entertaining action movie – the storytelling, while threadbare, is efficient and brisk, and the action itself is still sharp and visceral as is the franchise’s trademark. It looks, feels and sounds like a Bourne movie, and as a fan of the franchise, that was at least reassuring after the plodding story of The Bourne Legacy. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that a franchise once capable of producing outright classics of the genre has succumbed to the same obsessive fidelity to formula that’s marked this curiously mediocre summer of blockbusters.
The title of the movie may indicate a focused character study of Matt Damon’s opaque bruiser, but one of Jason Bourne’s strange quirks is that it puts far less effort into Bourne’s character arc than it does the supporting cast. Bourne may be ostensibly front and centre, but his story is almost crudely basic – a play-by-play rendition of the dull old cliché of the hero discovering his father possessed hidden depths. There’s a vague mystery surrounding the allegiances of Bourne’s father, revealed to be connected to the increasingly labyrinthine conspiracy at the heart of the franchise, but it’s executed half-heartedly with no real commitment to crafting it into a genuinely suspenseful story. When the truth comes out, the reveal lands with a thud because it’s neither surprising nor interesting – it just makes the franchise’s world feel smaller and less rich by having everything revolve around Bourne and his family. Making Bourne into someone who was destined to be an action hero is lazy, derivative storytelling because it makes Bourne into even more of a reactive passenger than he already feels in a movie where his globe-trotting is mostly fuelled by people pushing him to go to places that suits their agenda. Matt Damon’s return is welcome, bringing his stoic charisma and physicality to the role as if he never left, but it’s a shame that the return of the franchise’s central hero merely detracts from his character rather than adding to it.
Conversely, there are quite a few interesting subplots playing out on the fringes in Jason Bourne, most of which are played out entirely over the titular character’s head. The most compelling arc centres around the most valuable new addition to the franchise here, which is Alicia Vikander’s CIA analyst Heather Lee. Heather quickly rises above the ‘conflicted CIA agent’ template established by previous Bourne movies to become a dynamic and entirely unpredictable character who swaps sides and changes her agenda so many times that it becomes virtually impossible to predict her actions in any given moment. The manipulative game-playing of Vikander’s character allows Jason Bourne to capture a certain degree of paranoia and nagging uncertainty that it would otherwise have been sorely lacking, and the movie’s choice to position her as a crucial figure for the future is a shrewd way to build a new stage in the Bourne franchise.
The Bourne franchise has always tried to reflect the tumultuous political landscape of the time, and Jason Bourne certainly tries to continue that tradition by turning its focus to creeping fears of the surveillance state and governmental interference in the lives of ordinary people. The basic set up of the Deep Dream company that’s made an illicit data-sharing deal with the CIA is certainly an interesting one that’s rife with potential for a compelling depiction of the constant push and pull between individual liberty and collective safety, but Jason Bourne doesn’t delve a lot deeper than the surface in the debate. The basic points of either side are given lip service, but the movie seems mostly content just to introduce those ideas as they are left entirely undeveloped – the chance for an interesting back-and-forth with a central privacy debate is missed out, which means that the franchise’s typically sharp social commentary comes across as shallow and simplistic. This subplot is at least helped by the reliable safe pair of hands that is Tommy Lee Jones, channelling his typical-but-effective brand of grizzled, mildly irritated ruthlessness as the director of the CIA, and the engagingly nervy performance given by Riz Ahmed (who will prominently featured in Rogue One) as young CEO Aaron Kalloor who breathe life into the staid dialogue, but the exploration of these topical debates is a bit of a missed opportunity here.
Another franchise staple, of course, is the action sequences. The basic templates pioneered by Greengrass – the meeting in a crowded public place tracked by the CIA, the close-quarters fistfight, the car chase – are present and correct here, played just as you’d expect them to with satisfying but unsurprising results, but the action really soars when Greengrass tries to really step outside of that formula. The movie’s strongest action sequence, a frantic foot/motorbike chase in the midst of a Greek anti-government riot is one that captures the potent mix of cutting topicality and nail-biting claustrophobia that marked the best sequences of the original movies without outright copying them. As a result, it’s a genuine nail-biter of a set-piece because it doesn’t strictly adhere to a recognisable and therefore predictable template as, say, the Paddington Square footchase in the second act does, culminating in a real shock that establishes real and tangible stakes that carry over for the rest of the movie. The final car chase is also strong, with a showier and more explosive feel reflecting the intensely personal nature of the feud between Bourne and the (mostly boring and derivative) ‘Asset’ sent to kill him – but Jason Bourne is smart enough to know where its strengths really lie, concluding the car chase in a visceral and raw fistfight directed with aplomb by Greengrass. While the shaky-cam style of the direction has certainly lost some of its lustre with age, there’s an intensity and bluntness to Jason Bourne’s sequences that most of its action peers can’t quite match.
In essence, Jason Bourne delivers the basic elements you would expect from the return of Damon and Greengrass, but doesn’t expand much beyond those simple concepts. The changes made to the franchise’s mythology are largely superfluous and just serve to make the central conspiracy less interesting, and the return of Bourne as a character isn’t really capitalised upon as he soon retreats to secondary status. Perhaps the most fitting thing to say about Jason Bourne is that it continues the franchise efficiently, putting the series in a place where it could satisfyingly wrap up or continue for several movies to come – and unlike Legacy, it’s more or less true to the spirit and ethos of the original movies and does add a couple of very interesting characters and ideas to the franchise. It’s neither a crushing disappointment nor a relieving success; successful in its attempt to channel the experience of the original movies to a fault. With Jason Bourne, the franchise has returned to a stable footing, but it has unfortunately lost most of its spark in the process.