From time to time, film genres are redefined by with a single stroke. Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity hit cinemas like a bomb and changed the spy thriller, only to be surpassed again by Paul Greengrass‘ The Bourne Supremacy. Suddenly, action was filmed almost exclusively in shaky-cam and James Bond traded his gadgets in for more realistic gear. Of course, with the exception of Casino Royale, nobody ever got close to matching the Bourne-trilogy, not even its own spin-off, The Bourne Legacy. Now, years later, as films like The Raid and John Wick seem to point to the end of the era of Bourne, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon reteam to bring Jason Bourne back to our screens.
Jason Bourne finds its titular hero hiding out in Greece, where he enjoys the beach, good food and pit fighting for money. Okay, mostly the pit fighting and less of the enjoyment. He’s gone a little bit grey, but he hasn’t lost his edge, which he demonstrates via spectacular one-punch K.O. as shown in the trailer. His quiet life of handing out knuckle sandwiches ends when, in a scene that is copied beat-for-beat from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, franchise regular Nikki Parsons shows up to recruit him. She has gone all Snowden and hacked the CIA, stealing all the records regarding the so-called Beta-Programs, including Treadstone, Blackbriar, Outcome and the focus of this film, Iron Hand. The rest of the film has Bourne try to uncover more of his own past while simultaneously evading capture by the CIA, represented by Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander and Vincent Cassel.
There are numerous reasons why the Bourne films are as good as they are. First, Matt Damon gives Bourne the vulnerability that so many of the greatest action heroes possess. John McClane has no shoes, Jason Bourne has no memories. He is constantly confused, always hunted and never gets to rest. Second, everything he does, he does in a unique way. Whether he shows off his deadly skills with a pen or a magazine, leads the police in a car chase through Paris in a Mini or moves through a crowd unseen, you know Bourne when you see him in action. He has a distinct set of skills and strategies. Third, the Bourne movies always have a very clear sense of space. When Bourne knows he’s about to be in a car chase, he doesn’t just drive, he looks at a map to find the best route. Sadly, in all of these categories, Jason Bourne is just slightly less than the franchise used to be.
Matt Damon is still great in the role, but the character arc this movie gives him, involving the relationship with his father, just doesn’t play. The previous Bourne films each had a character arc that grew believably out of what came before, while this one just feels thrown in. In general, it almost feels like Bourne is a side character in his own movie at times, which can work (and it does so very well in one extended set-piece), but ultimately makes the film feel a little bit hollow. There’s also a weird double-revenge-plot, which doesn’t work for even a second. The supporting cast, especially Vikander and Stiles, do reasonably well for themselves, although Vincent Cassel is so essentially French to me that I had some trouble to buy him as an American operative.
The action is probably the most underwhelming. That is not to say that it is not good, but from a Bourne movie by Paul Greengrass, I had expected much more. The opening action scene, which takes place during a riot in Athens, would be good enough if the ending wasn’t telegraphed so heavily. It does show Bourne being Bourne, and that’s fine. However, the other side of the conflict, Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones in a control room, devolves into Hollywood-hacking, i.e. Alicia Vikander sitting at a computer and hacking everything. There’s no complication, so these scenes are not compelling. The strongest set piece is an attempt by Bourne to meet an informant in London. It gets wonderfully complicated and for the most part, Jason Bourne is off-screen, keeping the audience unsure of what his actual plan is. It’s the most Bourne this movie gets. Finally, there is that car chase from the trailer, a SWAT-car against a Limousine, which is undeniably a well-executed action sequence, even though it goes on a little bit too long. However, it’s also doesn’t really feel like Bourne. Compared to the spectacular Mini chase from Identity, this just feels like spectacle.
And that’s ultimately the problem. Jason Bourne is certainly a fun action film, with competent direction and acting, but for some reason it takes the Hollywood motto “bigger is always better” to a franchise that has always excelled by being very grounded. This is evident even in the actual objective of our antagonists, a program to spy on the whole world via social networks. The franchise that used to show James Bond and Mission Impossible the way has now fallen behind and recycled the plot of the last two entries into those franchises.
Finally, the most damning piece of criticism I can give this film is that I re-watched the ugly stepchild of the franchise, The Bourne Legacy, the day after and found it more engaging. While Jeremy Renner’s adventure tanks in the third act and certainly reaches a lower point than Jason Bourne, but the first two thirds are phenomenal and way more exciting than anything in this new adventure.