There isn’t an ounce of flab on Matt Damon’s body. The same can’t be said of the latest installment in the Bourne series. Damon is reprising his role as Jason Bourne, the memory-deficient super spy, after a nine-year hiatus in which Universal Pictures attempted to expand the franchise with Jeremy Renner in 2012’s The Bourne Legacy.
The main problem with this series is that each movie essentially tells the same story. After suffering amnesia during an assignment-gone-wrong in the first movie, Jason Bourne becomes a spy that is forever trying to piece together his own past. In each successive picture, Bourne gets a new clue about the secretive program that turned him into an elite assassin. The saving grace of the Bourne movies is the tightly wound structure of each mystery. The plot always takes a back seat to the chase, as the CIA desperately tries to stop Bourne from revealing the disturbing truth he uncovers about the secret program that created him. In Jason Bourne, there’s frankly too much plot, and it detracts from the action.
Screenwriter Tony Gilroy was the principal scribe on the first four Bourne movies, but he’s MIA on Jason Bourne, and the movie likely suffers because of it. Director Paul Greengrass and his long-time editor Christopher Rouse took over writing duties this time, and they forgot what makes the Bourne movies exciting – namely Greengrass’ phenomenally paced and engrossing action sequences. Instead, they stuffed the story with so many plotlines that Jason Bourne becomes unfocused and bloated when it should be as intent and lean as Jason Bourne himself.
There are threads involving a data breach of CIA servers that’s “possibly worse than Snowden,” a billionaire CEO of a vaguely Google-type empire who is having second thoughts about building a back door into his software for the U.S. government, a CIA assassin who wants to settle a personal score with Bourne, and the new clue to Bourne’s past, this time involving his family. A Tony Gilroy script might have focused solely on that last point, and Greengrass would have done the rest with the action set pieces.
The first film in the series, The Bourne Identity, is the only one starring Damon that wasn’t directed by Greengrass. Doug Liman was in charge of the 2002 breakout hit, and the action there wasn’t anything special. Greengrass took over on The Bourne Supremacy, and while there’s a marked improvement on the action, The Bourne Ultimatum is really where the director made the Bourne series crackle with unbelievably taught chase scenes. There’s almost none of that in Jason Bourne. It feels like Greengrass was so intent on juggling the various story elements of his movie that he simply didn’t have time to focus on the action.
Two moments in particular do stand out, however. The first involves Bourne crashing through a window as he takes a headlong-dive off of a roof. The second comes closer to the sustained action of The Bourne Ultimatum. It’s a car chase between the vengeful CIA assassin – known only as The Asset – driving an armored SWAT truck, and Bourne in a Dodge Charger. The high point comes when The Asset rams the Charger sideways through the crowded streets of Las Vegas. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to see a truck smashing through rows of slot machines in a casino, Jason Bourne offers up a pretty damn good rendering of that.
Those two moments induce the adrenaline fans of this series have come to expect, but the rest of the action here is pretty forgettable. The Bourne Ultimatum is packed with moments like this, which is why Jason Bourne pales so much by comparison.
The movie compounded my dissatisfaction with the small details about technology that the script treats sloppily, making it very hard to jettison my disbelief. At one point, Bourne is searching for clues about his past in the hacked CIA documents, and he runs a “find word” search on an image document, like a jpeg. Maybe I’m more savvy than the film’s producers, but the fact that doing such a thing isn’t possible completely took me out of the movie.
A friend pointed out another logic problem that I admittedly didn’t notice while watching the movie. Those same documents are stored on a flash drive, and they were embedded with malware that allows the CIA to track them when they are opened on a computer connected to the internet. So, does super spy Jason Bourne or the Assange-esque hacker who Bourne takes the files from make sure to disconnect their computer before opening these files, just as a precaution? Nope. Problems like these, which could be fixed by anyone on the crew consulting their own children, make the lack of engagement all the more glaring.
The performances in Jason Bourne help make up for some of what’s missing in the writing. Matt Damon is, well, Matt Damon. He is one of the most charismatic action stars of his generation, as noted in my review of The Martian. Tommy Lee Jones as CIA director Robert Dewey delivers his signature “Mr. Crankypants” persona as well as you could ever want. Alicia Vikander – who was phenomenal in last year’s Ex Machina – overcomes the fact that her character, head of CIA cyber Ops Heather Lee, is a complete cipher. Of all the performances, Vincent Cassel as The Asset is one of the best. He plays the CIA assassin with a chilling intensity.
Jason Bourne is immeasurably hurt when compared with the best film in the series, The Bourne Ultimatum. The meticulously crafted action scenes and tightly focused story in that movie highlight everything that’s missing in this one. Added to that is the fact that there’s really not much more for Jason Bourne to discover about his past now. At this point, Damon, Greengrass, and Universal would be best served to let their super spy enjoy a permanent retirement.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- The plot is unfocused, and the action isn't that dazzling, outside of those few keys moments I mentioned.
- All in all, it's a pretty underwhelming entry in the Bourne series, and that's coming from someone who isn't even that big of a fan of the films. Except for The Bourne Ultimatum. Seriously, that movie is amazing.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- One set piece that is wonderfully realized by Greengrass is a protest march that quickly devolves into a riot. I've been to a few marches and rallies, but luckily nothing that broke down into violence. Greengrass gave the scene an immediacy that made me feel like I was there.
- I only mentioned the specific car in the review because, while I’m about as far from a “car guy” as you can get, I love the look of the Charger. The design just screams “tough” to me.
- Full disclosure: There is one movie in the Bourne series I haven't seen, The Bourne Legacy. I can't vouch for it's quality, or lack thereof, in any way.