The best piece of characterization in Jason Bourne happens in the opening scene of the film inside an illegal underground boxing circuit where his talents are maximized for profit. The look on his face says it all, he can hurt people and he’s good at it. It’s a curse but a necessary one. The scars on Bourne’s back protrude, but the scars in his eyes speak volumes of torment that still haven’t healed. What a shame that this fourth instalment and all its backtracking to past accomplishments also begin to swell like wound that won’t heal. It’s been nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum, and as Matt Damon himself has said, “the story of this guy’s search for his identity is over, because he’s got all the answers.” Out of all the Bourne films starring Damon, Jason Bourne is considerably the worst.
In the absence of a workable script or directional congruity, director Paul Greengrass seems more transfixed on making Bourne a more updated, “contemporary” hero than a more fleshed out one. Fully equipped with references to privacy in social media, callbacks to Citizenfour and anti-governmental rhetoric evoking the old adage of “who watches the watchmen?”, Greengrass seems more desperate now than ever to establish the Bourne films as “important” ones. It’s a damn shame Greengrass never figured out that in between commentary and context how predictable his films have become, how every beat is just a weaker variation on old moral retrospectives that too played with the “bad versus worse” device.
The disappointing revelation that comes with Jason Bourne is that the films have simply plateaued. Not even acclimatizing the film into new social atmospheres or political settings can change the fact that Jason Bourne’s emotional journey ended in The Bourne Ultimatum. As a result, Jason Bourne just backpedals, uncovering more history and back-story, reinventing and remodelling character motivation. It’s become a repetition of old formulas subtly disguised under “new” mysteries and narrative baggage.
Thankfully Paul Greengrass still hasn’t lost his craftsman’s touch in framing engaging action sequences, employing his signature hand-held camera in typically chaotic, unapologetic fashion. Two set-pieces are standouts, a rendezvous in the midst of a riot in the flame-ravaged back lots of Greece and a car chase on a neon-lit Las Vegas freeway. Unfortunately craft and technique seem to be the only decisively praiseworthy elements. That’s not to say that any of the previous Bourne films didn’t too suffer from the same lack of symbiosis between stylized action and plot development. It’s just the lack of palatable story in Jason Bourne making this distinction more painfully obvious.
The new lineup of talent here is impressive but completely mishandled. Alicia Vikander, perhaps the most exciting new addition to the Bourne franchise, is afforded the most screen time playing a C.I.A. up-and-comer, unfortunately she’s never given an opportunity to really show us the kind of moral complexity that the screenplay so obviously calls for. Tommy Lee Jones plays Vikander’s superior in the CIA, a stone-faced authoritarian whose stark deadpan harkens back to Jones’ Fugitive days as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, after deciding chasing people with drones and CCTV cameras was way more fun than chasing them on foot and down storm drains. Riz Ahmed plays a social media magnate with ties to the C.I.A. He brings an honest naturalism to his performance, despite the fact that his character is blandly interchangeable with any other past-decade, real-life social networking billionaire. Vincent Cassel comes into the frey as a football-watching C.I.A. assassin, he exudes enough of a villainous presence but any motivation he has couldn’t be stretched thinner if it was caught under a steamroller.
I can’t help but feel bad for Julia Stiles [spoilers to follow] who appears in the film solely to be brushed off, likely to endow more screen time to the new faces. Her character isn’t even given the same tragic context of Franka Potente whose death at least helped shaped the moral grey area of Jason Bourne’s character in The Bourne Supremacy.
Almost fifty-percent of Jason Bourne is presented through visual exposition, information uncovered on computer screens and almost infinite surveillance footage seem to exist in Greengrass’ film to reinforce the idea that privacy is no longer a human right but an asset. These aren’t badly explored themes, Greengrass has always been interested in exploring the world we live in, but Jason Bourne’s biggest crime is its utter refusal to remove itself of that objective reality mindset, approaching what was ostensibly supposed to be a spy thriller with thought provoking elements into a political case study with spy thriller elements. If Paul Greengrass sought to use Jason Bourne as a way of telling us how messed up the world was then perhaps he would be better off remembering why people watched the Bourne films in the first place—hint, it wasn’t because we wanted to watch lectures on the privacy issues of social media.