“This isn’t about revenge.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Jason Bourne” has an identity crisis. Jason Bourne the character has always had an identity crisis, of course, given that he was an average American citizen, one seen in a “Jason Bourne” flashback in khakis and a polo shirt as if straight from a somber J. Crew ad, programmed into a black ops killing machine by the CIA. With his memory more or less wiped, the three Damon-starring films of the series, “Bourne Identity”, “Bourne Supremacy” and “Bourne Ultimatum”, therefore centered on their titular character’s quest to reclaim who he was. That the CIA was forever determined to keep their assassin mum meant Bourne’s quests were rife with derring-do, car chases and hand-to-hand combat. When you drilled down, Bourne’s identity crisis was merely the compelling undercurrent of unrelenting action movies, especially the last two, helmed by shaky cam savant Paul Greengrass. “Jason Bourne” re-unites Greengrass and Damon, yet never engages 100% adrenaline, posturing like it wants to say something until you quickly realize its attempts at real world relevancy ring awfully hollow.
If you thought Jason Bourne settled his many issues as “Ultimatum” concluded, what were you thinking? This is Hollywood, where Sequel Law means there is always a little more backstory that can be squeezed out soap-opera style to ensure another film to procure a little more box office. In this case, Bourne’s dad (Gregg Henry), we learn, was mixed up with the CIA, a game-changing fact uncovered by our old computer whiz pal Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who, as the film opens, hacks into the CIA to steal and leak all its black ops secrets in the name of public service. That is potentially pertinent, and not just because Edward Snowden’s name is obligatorily dropped, but because the super-secret government program of “Jason Bourne”, deemed Iron Hand, yearns to sacrifice every American’s right to privacy for protection, so-called, instead.
Iron Hand is a joint operation between CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and sneaker-wearing Silicon Magnate Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed). Jones is all glower, all the time, wonderfully evincing a cranky old coot enraged he has to depend on a snooty little hipster to achieve his spy state dreams. Alicia Vikander, as CIA Cyber-Ops Chief Heather Lee, doesn’t smile much either, but that’s born more of ethical complications subtly brewing within her. She tantalizes as the potential successor to Joan Allen’s character, the one who might sympathize with Bourne rather than simply seek to snuff him out.
Simultaneously, however, Dewey stealthily employs The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to eliminate Bourne. The Asset is an old world kind of action movie character, getting place to place with a mound of phony IDs and disguises. “Jason Bourne” isn’t a comedy, obviously, but The Asset at one point getting past security by donning the nondescript vest and nametag of a hotel employee made me laugh. It’s the one scene that could have happened in the 1950s! And that’s not an accident. The Asset comes from a time when action movies were simpler, when revenge were the only stakes you needed to drive a plot, and, hey, wouldn’t you know that The Asset might – just might – be responsible for what happened to Bourne’s dad. This suggests that Bourne will have to decide between old fashioned vengeance and more high-minded concerns of protecting America’s best interests.
He never really makes that choice, though, because the movie itself can’t commit. Consider Bourne and Nicky’s initial meeting in Athens, which inevitably evolves into a foot and motorbike chase. Except that it’s a chase amidst a violent protest, not unlike those in February of this year, with police in riot gear and protestors fervently battling back. At one point, Bourne actually grabs a Molotov cocktail away from a rioter to use for his own diversionary tactics, a kind of protest appropriation. If Greengrass had genuinely sought to connect the movie’s moment with what’s going on in the world, it would have been one thing, but he doesn’t; it’s just cover for his characters to help evade capture. It’s in extremely poor taste.
Bourne movies have never taken place in the real world, not exactly, which is why any arguments about is preciptious innocent casualties never resonated with me. Greengrass’s style might have been of the vérité variety, but he had little interest in tethering his full-throttle aesthetic to social commentary. In “Jason Bourne”, however, scenes like that in Athens coupled with so many nods to civil liberty intrusion find Greengrass repeatedly injecting his fantasy with reality, though to little point and purpose. His movie’s mass surveillance state becomes a double edged sword, the means to keep the plot moving, nothing more. Heck, I’d think “Jason Bourne” was pro-surveillance if its attempts at commentary weren’t so trite.
At the same time, the film’s action sequences, once Greengrass’s euphoric hallmark, never achieve liftoff. The first one, a scene in which Bourne wins a bare knuckle brawl with one punch, is emblematic of their overriding perfunctory nature. Greengrass copies his suspenseful walk & talk in Waterloo Station from “Ultimatum” , and he mimics his Moscow car chase in “Supremacy”, but he never ups the ante for “Jason Bourne”. His glorious kinetic inventiveness falls by the wayside. It’s just bigger and louder. Here, the idea of going up a level is crashing a SWAT van through a Las Vegas casino, which just about perfectly sums up this entire enterprise, one whose action set pieces evoke as much style as its myriad conversations evoke substance. “Jason Bourne” goes bust.