Jason Bourne is No Longer Essential

(Note: Contains spoilers for the first three Bourne movies, but not this one.) 

One of the great pleasures of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum was the way it conclusively brought its protagonist’s journey full circle.  When the credits rolled, that was it: the saga was complete, and everyone was satisfied.  It almost didn’t matter whether or not Jason Bourne was dead in the East River in New York; either way, we wouldn’t see him again.

Even Matt Damon himself said as much, after that movie: “I kind of feel the story that we set out to tell has now been told.”  But nine years later, he and director Paul Greengrass (who helmed the last two in the series) are here to take on the formidable task of backing up a trilogy that remains the standard by which greatness in contemporary action movies is measured.

As we’ve come to expect, Greengrass and Damon continue to nail the essence of Bourne: the melancholic regret that plagues his journey; the lack of pithy responses to taunting villains who question his patriotism; the knowledge, say, of when to discard a hat that has turned from a helpful disguise to a recognizable liability; the way he plans his escapes before the bad guys even know what’s hit them; and the way that fights with other trained killers are hardly one-sided, casual affairs but evenly-matched, near-death endeavors that he barely wins.

Yet this film feels more raggedy, more poorly structured, and less memorable than all of its predecessors.  The danger signs were easy to spot ahead of time: the general track record of ‘past their prime’ movies; the lazy title; the shots in the trailer of Damon punching nobodies like some sort of Fight Club extra; and most notably, the absence of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in each of the first three movies.  As talented of a director as Greengrass is, he rarely pens his own scripts, but he does so here, aided only by someone (Christopher Rouse) with precisely zero previous writing credits.  The significance of Gilroy’s role and effectiveness within the franchise has been questioned even by Damon, but he’s a quality writer (see Michael Clayton, Duplicity, the rest of this series) and Jason Bourne bears the hallmarks of a story that could use a professional polish.

Matt Damon and Julia Stiles return.

Matt Damon and Julia Stiles return.

There are so many problems that Gilroy would have spotted, unless you think a writer of his caliber would have signed off on the movie with the thinnest story of the series also being the longest.  We open with Bourne shirtless and fighting buff strangers for the delight of gambling onlookers, and it’s safe to say that this isn’t the most original character action of all-time.  I mean, shit, that’s what The OC did with a mournful Ryan Atwood (and made it work better, honestly).  Greengrass doesn’t know what to do with the character besides show us traits we’ve already seen before.  That’s something, I suppose–he doesn’t fundamentally betray him–but it makes the movie feel eminently skippable.

Even the brawling could have been explored as a meaningful indicator of his psyche, but it’s discarded as nothingness once Nikki (Julia Stiles) shows up and kicks the plot in gear.  As that happens, Greengrass pumps his typical intensity into everything, but there’s little of substance underneath.  Character motivations have never been weaker (Nikki risking her life because she learns some vague piece of information about Bourne’s past is neither believable nor interesting; Dassault suddenly attacking Bourne is utterly nonsensical), and the surrounding story has never provided less forward momentum.  Even worse is how, without the services of a real writer on hand, the series has lost the undercurrent of genuine emotion it used to have.

Greengrass can’t flesh out the villains like we’re used to seeing, in ways that make them more resonant and three-dimensional than typical action baddies.  You remember the melancholy showdown with Clive Owen in Identity–the first time one of the assets uttered a word in the film–illustrating his similarity with Bourne and the cost of their line of work.  We vividly recall everything about Brian Cox and the way he complicated Landy’s perception of her job in Supremacy.  In Ultimatum, the final asset sent after Jason wondered why he didn’t kill him when he could have, leading Bourne to invoke Owen’s dying line.

There’s nothing so interesting here.  The series has always provided a delightful treasure trove of quality character actors, and this is no different: Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent Cassel should have been huge, er, assets to the movie.  But their characters are nothing more than vapors.

All of that might be okay if the movie wasn’t so blatant about copying from its predecessors.  These flicks used to invoke past moments to amplify or illuminate current ones, but here they’re just stealing the broad strokes, seemingly for lack of a better idea.  It just makes it clear how well Ultimatum, for all intents and purposes, ended the franchise.  That’s where he ‘remembered everything,’ where they truly hammered home his sorrow and regret, where they crystallized his refusal to kill any more than he has to.

A lot of those same beats show up here, along with many familiar plot points: Bourne guiding Nikki through angry street protesters while the suits watch them; a security breach triggering an immediate manhunt onto the offender, whom Bourne has to save (it was the journalist last time); Bourne’s quest to get more answers about his supposedly understood past.  That last component, his investigation into his father’s role in his recruitment by the CIA, holds less resonance than any of his previous psychological torments.  The conviction isn’t there.

This isn’t to say that the movie is without merit.  Greengrass still stages these set-pieces with so many moving parts that you can’t even imagine how they were conceived.  He likes to give different characters different motivations (and sometimes you aren’t sure what exactly they are), which imparts an added level of complexity over the dumbed-down simplicity of other movies’ big scenes.  The intensity firing off the screen—particularly in an early chase through crowded streets in Greece, probably the film’s high point—is still enough to make you wish for an intermission so you could catch your breath and drink some water.

As the strain starts to show and the climax veers towards the generic, it acquires a ‘going through the motions’ feel, hurtling towards its conclusion without the dark sadness of Supremacy or the electric pulse that coursed through Ultimatum.  This is the Bourne movie with the least amount of personality. 

Yet Greengrass isn’t in peak form here.  Too much action is spent in sterile rooms staring at computer screens, which he bizarrely seems fond of: too often, we cut away from action scenes back to the people watching them.  (At one point, we break away from a fight to experience the pleasure of hearing a bureaucrat say “They’re fighting.”  Thanks, buddy.)

And none of the set-pieces match, say, Ultimatum‘s one at Waterloo Station or that astonishing sequence in Tangier with Bourne tracking the asset tracking Nikki.  And while the intensity is a Bourne characteristic, it’s not the only one, and this movie lacks those poignant or inventive moments that made the first three so compelling: Bourne’s warning to Chris Cooper at the end of Identity; the unexpected apology to the Russian girl in Supremacy, or that movie’s Bourne-Nikki conversation underground; the “Are you in your office right now?” phone call in Ultimatum that re-defined badassery; the way the music stops during that rooftop chase as Bourne pauses to get his bearings, before ramping back up again as he jumps to his next roof.

All in all, the series has started to carry its weight awkwardly.  Damon, though in as good a shape as can be expected, finally looks too old to be the most lethal spy in the world.  There’s one hyped-up showdown between Bourne and hitmen that simply ends with him opening a door on someone and walking away, leaving you to ponder…that’s it?  Even the gotcha ending–soundtracked, of course, with that slithery Moby song–cackles with less mischief than the ones that ended Supremacy and Ultimatum.

Wesley Morris wrote in 2007 how these movies are “smarter than you, but not in an off-putting way.”  This one gives us a few more displays of Bourne’s cleverness—the way he can stop an elevator or rig a series of car alarms to give him a few precious seconds to escape.  But, as the strain starts to show and the climax veers towards the generic, it acquires a ‘going through the motions’ feel, hurtling towards its conclusion without the dark sadness of Supremacy or the electric pulse that coursed through Ultimatum.  This is the Bourne movie with the least amount of personality.

Maybe that’s because, as the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “There are no relationships here.”  The struggles of this movie illustrate how vital Bourne’s relationship with Marie was to the franchise.  Without her, Ultimatum was able to sustain itself thanks to Nikki’s presence, a few breathtaking sequences, and its relentless visceral rush, but the warmth had already begun to dissipate (it’s the shallowest of the first three).  By now, it’s gone entirely, and so is much of our interest in and sympathy for the character of Jason Bourne.

That’s all the more reason why any subsequent movies should strike out in new directions.  We don’t need to keep digging further and further into Bourne’s past until he recalls something from age 3 that started him down his path.  We’re all set on his backstory.

Chris Ryan of The Ringer suspects Gilroy would have understood that: “That’s Tony Gilroy’s movie: What if Jason Bourne became Edward Snowden? … What an interesting idea. Instead, we get Jason Bourne searching for the truth about his dad? And he is being chased by very patriotic American assassin Vincent Cassel, who is French as shit? And Alicia Vikander’s and Riz Ahmed’s characters know each other from Stanford, but fuck it, shouldn’t we drive a car through a casino?”

It’s hard to argue with him.  Greengrass is a skilled director, but it’s pretty clear that his vision needs to be balanced by one with more humanity  Jason Bourne neither brings closure to the series nor suggests future stories.  Does it entertain?  I’d be able to answer that better if I remembered more of it.

(Photos courtesy of the film’s official Twitter account.)

Grant J.

Grant J.

Grant co-founded Earn This in 2009 and is a regular contributor. His music taste makes him seem a lot weirder and sadder than he really is.

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