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Jason Bourne (2016): Retread Weakens Legacy

With his memory returning, Jason Bourne emerges from hiding to uncover his past and learn the truth about who he really is. The fifth in the series and a sequel to the third, it’s Jason Bourne.

In a recent interview, actor Matt Damon, who plays the eponymous Bourne, stated that playing the troubled agent at 45 years of age is a lot different (and harder) than when he started out at 29, even though all the running and fighting still has to be there. That might be the first issue with this latest installment, a sequel that seems unnecessary. What could have been a more intelligent, thoughtful introspection about the character’s past and what it means for his future, feels compelled to follow strictly in the footsteps of his origins. While tampering with a franchise formula is always a risk, the opportunities to take this in a different direction might surely have made this a better experience. As it is, while all very familiar and Bourne-esque in its delivery, it lacks all of the excitement and imagination of its start. Worse, it superficially tries to be modern but is actually nothing more than a tired replay of everything we’ve seen before.

Jason Bourne
Matt Damon (Jason Bourne, 2016)

It begins quickly, as we learn that Bourne has been living off the grid as it were, occasionally breaking from the shadows to engage in some brawls. More than a decade after exposing Treadstone, he has recovered his memory. Stripped of everything from the previous films he is a ghost, a solitary man intent only on keeping it that way. Naturally, it doesn’t last. Contacted by series regular Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), she draws the elusive agent out of the shadows, claiming she has files that expose not only more about a new secret black ops program called The Iron Hand, but also information about Bourne’s father and his untimely death. Her actions though alert the CIA, including Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) the Head of Cyber Ops and CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). They decide to go after Bourne and call in a former member of one of the black ops programs, an agent only referred to as “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel). Now, with all parties involved, it’s a matter of who can find whom first.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, returning to the franchise after directing the first and second sequels (The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Supremacy), Jason Bourne is less a sequel and more of a checklist of Bourne tropes. Bourne himself, never a man of many words, has even less to say here, his skills as a fighter all the more important. I get that that there’s no reason to carry on with the amnesia aspect, and it was handled well enough in the first three films, but with his memory returned, tacking on something else for him to try and uncover feels like a wasted effort. The movie, like many in modern times, attempts to wedge in a plot about internet privacy, tossing out a “Worse than Snowden” line, but the movie is less interested in that than the hunt for Bourne, the cornerstone of the franchise they can’t let go. It, also like many modern films, believes the audience doesn’t want to think and would rather watch things moving very fast than absorb a complex plot. Maybe the makers are right, but it would be nice to have seen the talent behind this challenge us (and themselves) a bit more.

What we’re left with is a generic, by numbers action thriller that is like a warmed up TV dinner. There are no surprises, nothing we haven’t seen, and it will be forgotten when it’s over. It sounds like I didn’t want to like this movie, which is dead wrong. I have really enjoy the Bourne series, especially the first (listen to us gush in our podcast), but I can’t lie and say that everything about this film feels like a retread. How many times must we see a room full of monitors with techno-babble gibberish watched by analysts as an authority figure barks out expositional commands? How many times do we have to watch that same authority figure tell a subordinate to “stop right there!, Zoom, and enhance”? These are just a few of the standbys at play, but what’s really frustrating is the lack of imagination and abandonment of logic. How else do you explain a man spotted on a rooftop at night by a police helicopter shining a spotlight right on him, being told by his handler he’s got twenty seconds before cops are on the roof, then cutting back to see that he’s not only been able to secure a rope to the ground, but disappear without the helicopter noticing. I enjoy a good thriller and know when to check my brain (a term and description I loathe), but when Bourne hops in a car to give chase and (a different copter) shouts out the car’s make model, it feels like a plug for a product placement rather than procedural. Let alone the catastrophic damage the vehicle sustains without ever once deploying its airbags.

Yes, these might be considered minor adjustments done in service of the story. That’s the price many action films pay, but Greengrass, best known for his fast cuts and editing style, simply repeats rather than innovates. The camera cannot be still for even a moment, even when we are meant to look at a text message shown on a smartphone, the camera can’t stop jittering about, making it almost impossible to read all surrounded by a non-stop pulse-pounding score by John Powell that tries to make every situation edge-of-our-seat. I’ll admit that I was a defender of this technique back when The Bourne Supremacy debuted and had everyone questioning what he was doing, but there is something vastly different here. While the action in that film seemed to give that camera an organic feel for movement, it feels forced here, leaving many scenes, including a wildly implausible chase through Las Vegas nothing but a strobe-like parade of smashing cars.

Matt Damon looks good. There’s no denying that. At 45, he’s in great shape and still has that boyish charm but is weathered enough to be convincing as a man in hiding for nearly a decade. There is a confidence that feels polished and appropriate, and the movie does right by reminding us a bit of where he’s come from so that when we do see him as he is now, it feels right. We want to follow him and see where he takes us. The problem is, he leads us nowhere, to the same old fights with the same old people. (Honestly, it’s like the “government official” looking for Bourne is a revolving guest star in these films, similar to a Bond villain). One thing I really liked about the old Bourne was his cleverness. When he worked his way out of problems it felt earned because he was realizing his own potential just as we were. Here, when he just shows up and then disappears, it feels contrived. This is a Bourne I really wanted to get to know, but I left feeling more distant from the character–and the series–than I ever have.

Jason Bourne (2016): Retread Weakens Legacy


Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse
Stars: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles

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