jason-bourne

Whoa Matt Damon, you looking grim.

I am a huge fan of the Bourne movies. Never read the books, never cared to, but always liked the energy and aesthetic of the movies. They are muscular, spartan, and relentless. But what happens when an ill-advised pseudo-sequel is poorly received and prompts a “return to form” sequel a few years later, bringing back an aging lead and the series’ best writer-director? You’d think that it would be triumphant. Putting the “Bourne” back in Jason Bourne.

Unfortunately, if that was their goal, they were maybe a little too zealous. The problem with Jason Bourne isn’t that it returns to the titular character. It isn’t even the “shaky-cam” (I fucking hate that term) aesthetics of Paul Greengrass. It’s that the movie is so hell-bent on reconstructing the formula it developed over three great movies that it forgets to really do anything else, other than trotting out some story tropes that really don’t belong as a way to make the drama “more personal”. It doesn’t really work, so we’re left with a Bourne movie that is definitely what it says on the tin, but manages to make the series feel formulaic and kind of tired. It’s missing the special symmetrical magic of Ultimatum which is really where they should have stopped making these movies.

That said, there’s still enough of the old magic in here for the movie to skate by more or less. In other words, if you’re expecting a Bourne movie then you’re going to get one. Every box is checked: car chases, improbable escapes, improvised weapons, and an “Asset” hot on Bourne’s trail. If you’re willing to settle for the formula, Jason Bourne will be just fine for you. However, I wanted a little more than “just fine”. I wanted a movie that maybe expanded its world or gave us a reason to follow Bourne back into the fray. Instead, the world is shrunk down and made insular by focusing too much on Bourne’s backstory and not enough on where he goes from here.

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Nicky returns briefly. Ever so briefly.

Bourne (Matt Damon) is hanging out near Greece doing bumfights to work out his anger issues. Meanwhile, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is working with hackers and finding out even more dirt on the CIA black ops programs that spawned Bourne in the first place. Bourne’s memories have been slowly returning and instead of finding the peace he had hoped to find, he’s mostly just mad about it. Nicky gives him more shit to be mad about when she explains that not only was his dad involved in Treadstone, but it was “his” program which probably means David Webb, the kid Bourne used to be, didn’t simply volunteer as was previously believed. As Nicky dies in a way that purposefully and ill-advisedly echoes the way Marie died back in Supremacy, Bourne goes on another one-man crusade to get at the people who did this to him and find the answers he needs.

This is what I meant by the world becoming more insular by the way. Not only is Bourne’s dad now involved, and the movie enters a kind of “chosen one” trope space, but the Asset (Vincent Cassel) who kills Nicky and hates Bourne also has a personal stake in shit. He’s all over Bourne’s history, which inherently shrinks the world. Some will say that making everything personal, including the Asset’s desire to kill Bourne, is what brings something newish to this series. That would be true if the mechanics of the movie reflected it at all. Instead, everything proceeds in exactly the same way as it has in the previous movies, with these “personal motivations” only giving rise to a few lines of dialogue. If nothing different happens as a consequence of different motivations, then the different motivations simply do not matter for this story.

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Cassel brings all of his usual bourgeois intensity to layer beneath his haggard, used up character.

Because there’s always a team behind the Assets, Jason Bourne introduces another Old White CIA Guy With Skeletons in his Closet (Tommy Lee Jones, because prestige actors always have to play these dudes) and an inquisitive, maybe-ally female operator to replace both the Old White CIA Guy of yesteryear as well as the now dead Nicky Parsons. In fact, Nicky is barely dead before Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) is taking her place in the mechanism of the movie. Even though she turns out to be still “with the Man” at the end, Lee shows the same potential for going over to Bourne’s side of things that Nicky did in the earlier movies. This tells you a lot about the motivations of the people making this movie, which have a much greater impact on the shape of it than the motivations of their characters.

I guess the problem with Jason Bourne might be that it lays the foundation of these movies bare. It totally reveals the samey skeleton on which they are hung. It’s not enough of a problem to retroactively ruin the previous Bourne movies. It’s barely enough of a problem to ruin this one. But still, it doesn’t make me happy to understand how the magician does his trick. These characters seem trapped in a loop, with the bad guys making the same mistakes and Bourne pulling off the same quasi-superhuman feats of focus, determination, and ass-kickery.

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Even the “Bourne disarms fools and poses watchfully” box is ticked.

In fact, Jason Bourne shoots that up a few notches into standard Hollywood action territory. Rather than maintaining the series’ commitment to believable action, this movie allows Bourne to suffer wounds that would certainly kill or disable him, only to walk away and be fine by the next scene. There’s also the increasingly conventional silliness of the hacking and surveillance scenes. These movies always seemed just this side of being near-future science fiction, but when you actually hear Vikander say “enhance”, you’re sort of reminded bluntly that you’re watching a movie. It insists on its world, and this was always a good hook for fans, but hitching the wagon to tropes we watch the Bourne movies to (mostly) avoid seems like a chickenshit move.

Maybe that’s at the heart of the somewhat lukewarm reaction this movie is getting. I hate to focus on what I wanted from a movie over what it actually offers, but it’s worth noting that Jason Bourne represents kind of a huge missed opportunity. It plays it completely safe when it was a real shot at closing the old Bourne book and starting a new one. Even the ending is utterly safe, with a tantalizing glimpse of the status quo finally changing only for a hip new mix of Extreme Ways to blast over the credits while Bourne walks away into a future movie that is almost certainly going to be pretty much this movie.

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