I know I’m late to the party on this one. In fact, I’m REALLY late to the party on this one — it was only a couple of weeks ago when I sat through the Bourne trilogy of movies for the first time. And I’ve got to say, it was such a perfect trilogy that I’m disappointed Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone. The whole trilogy had a satisfying arc to it, the third film ended with Bourne having finally learned everything about his elusive origins, and an attempted spin-off — The Bourne Legacy – came out to such a lukewarm reception that it seemed like nobody wanted a sequel.
Yet here we are with Jason Bourne, the fourth movie to chronicle the adventures of our favorite pissed-off amnesiac super-spy, complete with the return of lead actor Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass. And imagine my shock to find that the film actually does a pretty good job of justifying its own existence. Moreover, the film’s strengths and virtues are still consistent with those of the other three films to star Jason Bourne, though that isn’t always a good thing in this case.
The most obvious example concerns the shaky-cam. Paul Greengrass is widely credited for starting the trend of shooting action in a shaky-cam “cinema verite” style, and I can’t think of anyone else in the past decade who’s done it so well. That said, while the shaky-cam in this one is similarly well-used for the most part, there are admittedly times when it only gets in the way. In particular, the initial chase through Athens and the big climax at Las Vegas were wholly incomprehensible through massive stretches.
(Side note: Based on what I’ve heard from my family in Vegas, I understand that it made headline news down there when they were shooting the sequence. Seems that not all of the vehicular mayhem was CGI. Though knowing what the Strip is like at the best of times, I doubt that shutting it down entirely made traffic move any slower.)
That said, the action is suitably engaging throughout. While it’s questionable just how “realistic” the action is, the franchise remains committed to fight scenes, shootouts, chase scenes, and so on that are always just barely grounded enough to maintain suspension of disbelief. Any CGI is barely noticeable, the practical effects all look amazing, and the fights are very tightly focused on the characters in play, all of which serve to make the action nicely visceral.
This brings me to a crucial part of what separates the Bourne films from other spy franchises like Bond, Mission: Impossible, or Fast and Furious: All of those franchises are rooted in a kind of fantasy. By comparison — aside from the beautiful international locales and the vicarious thrill of following an invincible protagonist — Bourne offers none of that. There are no gorgeous femme fatales. There are no extraordinary gadgets. There are no ostentatious cars.
All of that holds true in this movie, though there are some occasional twists. Specifically, Hollywood seriously needs to get the memo that “enhancing” isn’t a thing. There’s no way to magically make a blurry photo look crystal clear. I don’t care if it looks cool or whatever, it’s a lie.
More importantly, there’s an electronics trade show in Vegas where all the spy toys that Bourne could ever need are right there within arm’s reach. Products for electronic surveillance, made to be used and purchased by a public only too happy to record where they are and what they’re doing at any given time. It’s a pretty neat commentary, actually.
This brings me to another trademark feature of the Bourne franchise: The emphasis on electronic surveillance. From start to finish, this franchise has already featured umpteen protracted scenes of CIA technicians working to track Bourne’s movements through security cameras, cell phones, satellite images, and every other kind of electronic means known to science. While other spy franchises have only recently begun commenting on the conflict of electronic privacy vs. national security (see also: Spectre and Furious 7), this subject has been woven into the Bourne franchise from the very beginning. Which puts the franchise pretty well ahead of its time, really. Remember, The Bourne Identity was released in the summer of 2002, and it was well into production by the time 9/11 happened.
This subtext is brought right to the forefront of this latest picture, as the plot largely concerns Aaron Kalloor, played by Riz Ahmed. He’s a Jesse Eisenberg stand-in, the founder and CEO of a Facebook stand-in called Deep Dream. Kalloor is being pressured to build a backdoor into the latest version of his social media platform so the CIA can spy on its citizens. The parallels to recent headlines should be obvious.
But here’s the problem: The CIA argues that they need this information to keep Americans safe. In this case, the argument would carry a lot more weight if we EVER, at any point in this franchise, actually saw the CIA overstepping their boundaries in any way that actually kept Americans safe.
This is another signature aspect of the Bourne franchise: While James Bond’s MI6 and Ethan Hunt’s IMF are both full of government-funded allies eager to help stop an evil international threat, the CIA of Jason Bourne’s world is consistently its own worst enemy. From Treadstone and Blackbriar to the killings of Nykwanna Wombosi and Vladimir Neski, right up to this social media snooping scheme, the higher-ups at the CIA have only ever shown three motivations for anything they do: money, personal power, or to cover their own asses.
Every single plot to all four movies is powered solely by the negligence and arrogance of the CIA. 1. Somebody up top does some black ops shit for their own personal gain, justifying it with some flimsy tripe for the greater good. 2. Somebody who could potentially expose those corrupt secrets (usually Bourne) shows up. 3. The CIA makes efforts to kill the potential leak. 4. The assassination goes awry in a way that causes a huge and publicly visible mess. (Again, typically because of Bourne.) 5. The CIA has to try and kill even more people and make a bigger ruckus to clean up the mess they’ve already made. 6. This doesn’t go well. 7. This never goes well. 8. No, seriously, this NEVER goes well. 9. Things keep on spiraling further and further out of control until the whole thing backfires and the CIA officials responsible are made to suffer. (Frequently by way of — you guessed it — Bourne.) 10. The whole thing repeats again for the sequel. What did I just say about how this NEVER goes well?
To be fair, this escalating conflict of Jason Bourne vs. the CIA makes for a compelling cat-and-mouse chase, and that’s really the franchise’s bread and butter. Somehow, it’s consistently entertaining to watch the CIA as they plan and prepare for the worst, pulling out all the stops and adjusting their strategies to make sure that this time, goddammit, they’re not going to let Jason Bourne slip through again. Which makes it even more compelling to watch Bourne as he figures out how to outgun, outrun, out-think, and outlast the motherfucking CIA. Bourne never wins because the enemy is careless or because they keep on underestimating him — Bourne wins because he’s smart enough and tough enough to stay constantly one step ahead. And it’s always amazing to watch.
That said, there were quite a few times in this particular movie when I had to question the CIA’s competence. No joke, there’s a point when Bourne himself — disguised only with a coat and a baseball cap — walks right past a CIA lackey who had previously identified him on sight from a computer screen. FAIL.
More importantly, the CIA is made to look that much dumber when they keep consistently making the same mistakes over and over again. I can’t possibly tell you how many poor stupid bastards in the CIA have lost their jobs and/or their lives because they went after Bourne, no matter how many times the results are always exactly the same: Bourne lives, whoever’s around him dies, and Bourne goes on the warpath looking for answers. I could’ve sworn the CIA had learned this at the end of the first movie, but I guess it just hasn’t sunk in that the best way to get rid of Jason Bourne is to LEAVE HIM THE FUCK ALONE!!!
This brings me to Bourne himself and his involvement in the plot. You may recall that the last time we saw Bourne, he had not only solved his origins as part of Treadstone and learned about his role in Blackbriar, but he had also publicly exposed both of those projects and those responsible. Yet in spite of those events, it seems that SOMEHOW, there’s still some information about Treadstone that Bourne doesn’t know about. Specifically with regards to Bourne’s father and why Bourne joined the project to begin with. And this information is apparently so sensitive that some CIA higher-ups are still desperate to kill Bourne so that he doesn’t discover this knowledge. About a project that’s been public knowledge for several years and defunct for even longer.
Let’s be clear: This is not beating a dead horse. To repeat, this is not beating a dead horse. No, no, no. This is more like the Monty Python parrot sketch… if that parrot had eaten the worm that ate the decomposing corpse of the dead horse.
Incidentally, it bears mentioning that this new data comes to Bourne by way of Nicky Parsons, once again played by Julia Stiles. Yeah, it seems that Stiles has been routinely hacking the CIA and leaking sensitive data ever since they tried to kill her back in the third movie, so chalk that up as yet another time in which the CIA is undone by its own compulsion to kill anyone who might be an annoyance. Speaking of which, I’m sad to say that Nicky gets some truly awful dialogue, and her line readings are easily the weakest among the entire cast. Though at least she doesn’t do very much damage — as with Nicky’s appearances in the other three movies, her screen time here is, uh… *ahem* quite brief.
Far more screen time is given to Tommy Lee Jones, who seems to be having a genuinely good time onscreen for the first time in ages. Alicia Vikander also appears in a prominent supporting role, and she plays her part beautifully. Gregg Henry pokes his head in, and he’s always a pleasure to see onscreen. Last but not least is Vincent Cassel, who plays our “anti-Bourne” for this movie. Though it’s interesting to note that unlike other super-assassins from the previous films, this one has a deeply personal vendetta against Bourne. It adds a neat kind of energy to the proceedings.
For better or worse, Jason Bourne is a Bourne movie. Everything that was great about the first three films is still great here, and everything that sucks about the first three films is still a drawback here. Unfortunately, the drawbacks are getting way more difficult to ignore. It’s getting harder and harder to watch the CIA as they consistently keep on making the same mistakes out of their own arrogance, and the bottom of the barrel is wearing perilously thin with regards to the Treadstone storyline.
As a standalone film, it’s perfectly fine. As a sequel to the previous films, it works beautifully. But as a pilot for another set of sequels, it fails miserably. This movie needed to bring something new to the table if the franchise is going to stay viable for another two or three entries, and it just flat didn’t. If the filmmakers have nothing more to offer than the same recycled plot and more contrived ways to bring Treadstone into this mess, then count me out.
That said, if you liked the first three movies, you’ll find more of the same visceral action with all the same cat-and-mouse thrills. Go ahead and check it out.