Poor Jeremy Renner and Tony Gilroy – ignored like yesterday’s clearance codes thanks to the voracious hunger of Hollywood’s reboot machine. The duo’s last Bourne entry, The Bourne Legacy, is nothing but a distant (and forgotten) memory thanks to the return of stalwarts Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass to this year’s re-reboot, simply titled Jason Bourne.
Not only does the nomenclature echo a return to franchise normalcy, but it’s also the beginning of a new chapter – dare I say Robert Ludlum’s cinematic adaptations have been BOURNE AGAIN?! Don’t worry, Greengrass won’t let you forget that there’s a changing of the guard, as numerous characters hint at the death of old-school mentalities that no longer work. Yet, are the new-school upgrades good enough to warrant however many more years of Bourne we’ll most certainly be enduring?
After a brief recap montage, we once again meet up with Matt Damon’s off-the-grid agent Jason Bourne. As an underground boxer, Jason seems to pass the time by knocking Eastern European competitors out with single punches until Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reappears with new information. Jason thought his father was murdered by terrorists, but after Nicky hacks heavily-guarded government secrets, classified files suggests foul play. More importantly, the documents implicate CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and a contract killer known as “The Asset,” (Vincent Cassel), who Jason swears revenge against (through silent stalking). Out of hiding and back into the fire – such is the life of a brainwashed super-agent, I guess.
Within no time, ass-kicker Damon reappears like a ghost from our past, emphasizing every scene with his signature pained scowl. 2016’s jaded Jason Bourne is a man of few words, which works against the Boston actor’s inherent charisma. Scenes are built on cold, intimidating stares, never raising anything except for angry doubt that’s unearthed in a quite fan-service-y kind of way. This is a hardened, grizzled Bourne with dirt under his fingernails he’ll never clean out. It almost seems narcissistic to bring him back into action at this point, and that’s exactly how Damon plays his hand at times. Not as the hero we desire, but the reluctant favorite who rides into focus on the wings of nostalgia.
Greengrass has a very distinct style of filmmaking, and – unfortunately – that means lots of whiling camera shots that scoff in the face of steady-cam techniques. Fight sequences are never captured with clarity, as Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd blur and swirl a dizzying array of choreography that’s lost in chaotic, incessant camera manipulation. People complain about motion sickness during found footage horror films, yet those examples have nothing on the way Greengrass attempts to force ferocity through constant, unstable motion. Glimpses of striking blows and hand-to-hand brutality shine through in the few moments when Greengrass allows clear visual passage, but that’s a lopsided “WHEN” compared to all the blinding cutaways and unfocused fisticuff fighting.
That said, Greengrass does a splendid job using his locational set-pieces to heighten danger. When he keeps the damn camera still, Las Vegas is turned into a stage from Burnout 3: Takedown where vehicular carnage and mass hysteria play into a slightly-wobbly lens. It might not compete against Con Air‘s sunset-strip demolition, but Greengrass does encapsulate blockbuster sensibilities when keeping a steady focus. Some death-defying stunts throw bodies off buildings, and bad guys get roughed up whether we can see it happening or not. In other words, when coherently shot, Jason Bourne delivers the angry Bourne whose tactical skillset always manages to impress. This is still a Matt Damon vessel, and he’s still a damn-fine showman (with or without a voice).
Jason Bourne is about the ensemble, not just Damon’s return. Alicia Vikander injects some fresh blood into a maliciously corrupt system, playing “the game” of inner-department espionage far better than any of her thick-headed male counterparts. Under her hawk-like eye, Bourne’s struggles are in good hands, even though Vincent Cassel won’t be around to hassle everyone as he does here. Bourne needs an evenly-matched adversary, and Cassel fits the part wisely. Smart, tactically aware and mechanically programmed to kill – even the typically made-from-stone Tommy Lee Jones finds life in Cassel’s competitive nature.
Alas, this is still not the Bourne we know. What was once an intelligent, pulse-pounding franchise has become an expectedly derivative conspiracy theory run by greed and corruption – the very fabric of all similar genre workings. Matt Damon tries to bring his screen-dominating gravitas, but ends up speaking loudest through shirtless scraps, which doesn’t work in the mouthy performer’s favor. Each twist dives deeper into a dark web of lies and deceit, all tying back to the wrinkly old decision-maker who won’t let the past go. Jason Bourne feels like so many other cut-and-paste agent-under-fire stories, and not like another necessary Bourne adventure – and that’s the issue here. Gone are the tense realizations and baptism-by-patriotism morality issues, and they’re replaced by a flurry of nondescript, fly-by butt-kicking.
This isn’t another Bourne film – it’s another mainstream attempt to feed off of familiarity. Jason Bourne succeeds in bringing back Matt Damon’s mean-mug to mass-audiences, but it fails to elevate the franchise beyond re-introductions and (unsurprising) exits. There are high-notes (Damon’s steely reserve, Tommy Lee Jone’s typical once-a-movie sass, Damon’s abs), and there are lows (KEEP THE ‘EFFING CAMERA STILL, BOURNE JUST HAPPENS TO BE IN A HIGH-TECH SECURITY CONFERENCE HE CAN ROB, NO SHOCKS) – but, most frustratingly, it’s the lacklustre return you’d fear for an almost decades-later reboot (nine years since Ultimatum). Bourne is back, but there’s still some dust to shake off – here’s hoping that the next inevitable sequel fully embraces something new and interesting, without all the whooshy camera bullshit.
Jason Bourne packs a punch, but it's softened by dizzying camera work and an expected story that loses what made the franchise so thrilling from the start.