At one point, Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films posed a legitimate threat to James Bond, that seemingly unkillable titan of action cinema. It was the kind of threat that actually drove the Bond franchise to change tactics and create its greatest film in Casino Royale. Seriously, as much Bond as there is in that film, the gritty realism of the action (that still pushes to peak-human limits) and the emotional sensitivity of Royale is almost 100% Bourne.
Unfortunately, the only cinematic threat the reunion of Bourne director Paul Greengrass and original star Matt Damon poses is to the franchise itself. And the only thing it seems to push or inspire is the sleeping-aid industry.
I’m gonna be real honest with you. This is usually where I summarize the plot, but I don’t feel comfortable doing so this time around.
I know the big strokes. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) returns to the world of spycraft in a search for answers about his identity when he finds out that his father was responsible for the program that turned him into an amnesiac killing machine. This takes him into conflict with the perpetually grumpy CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and CIA Tech Person Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). There’s also a social media mogul Aaron Kaloor (Riz Ahmed) who’s collaborating with the CIA on some shady shit and another deadly CIA assassin they only call the Asset (Vincent Cassel).
You’ll notice that the later part of that gets fuzzier and fuzzier and that’s because I fell asleep for about 20/30 minutes, after the intro but before the bulk of the second act. I feel super bad about it, honestly. I didn’t miss any big plot points, but I feel like I may have missed some major exposition. Like what the fuck Kaloor’s company Deep Dream actually does or why Heather Lee actually hated Dewey besides the fact that he was in her way.
On the other hand, I think that the fact that I didn’t miss that much when I was asleep might speak to this film’s biggest problem. Yeah, I’m pulling that shit, hold with me. Jason Bourne is the kind of the film that should be lean on the bone. Every scene needs to fly forward with purpose and unravel an increasingly complicated mystery.
Doesn’t even come close to that. There’s a lot of dull repetition, a lot of scenes that don’t mean much or are filling space. Jason Bourne labors under the impression that what we were all dying to see in the previous films were CIA politics. Not true.
This delusion means that the story seems to be largely starring Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters, leaving Bourne feeling like a supporting role or a side presence in the movie with his full name on the marquee. It just seems like a monumental case of missing the point.
It might however be a defense mechanism. Jason Bourne is also operating with the problem that the biggest mysteries of the character have been solved and it seems to be left with the unfortunate fact that it has now spent three films building a franchise around a character that it deliberately cannot deepen or give much for us to hook into.
Bourne is a static character, and that really shows in his revival. Sure, there’s action beats that we’re all excited to see again, but what character traits were we really missing? Bourne is a deliberately pretty humorless, dry guy and there’s nothing here. He’s a boring lead when the film and story around him isn’t more interesting, and here, it isn’t.
By the way, let’s talk about those action beats a little bit. The major subtext of this film is that it’s been quite some time since we last checked in with Bourne and his world (almost 10 years) and our world has changed in ways he couldn’t even imagine. It’s why so much of this film is about new surveillance tech and the conflict between a young tech-y woman and a crotchety old spycraft dude.
But if the film knows it, why isn’t it bringing that ethos everywhere?
Greengrass’ sense of action in Bourne was revolutionary. Even if it’s been misapplied since, his shaky-camera work made action feel chaotic and gripping, like you’d actually been dropped in the middle of the fray.
In even just the past few years though, we’ve seen a new revolution in action. Films like John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Captain America: Winter Soldier have all taken those lessons of chaos and given them a sense of absolute control. There’s a cleanness and scale to the action that has become the dominant force and it means that Jason Bourne is trying to bring something back that we’ve in very small ways rebelled against since.
It means the action beats are well-done. There’s some fantastically choreographed chases and brutal fight scenes. But it also means that Greengrass’ style is working against them now. That shakiness feels like it’s obscuring something that we want to see. Just messy rather than chaotic.
However, it doesn’t matter if that’s all well-made if I don’t give a shit about it. It’s grounding all this action in character motivations and beats that are either non-existent or too shallow for any roots to take hold.
There’s a reasonable enough sense of craft and the actors are game enough to play what they’ve been given (though what the absolute hell is Vikander doing with her accent?). It’s not an aggressively bad film.
It’s just a dud. Jason Bourne comes out in a field that it’s not been a part of in years with seemingly no new tricks. All the self-awareness of that in the text doesn’t mean a thing when no one seemed to do anything about trying to fix it.
A film that should be exciting is dull, and a film that should keep us wanting more actively put me to sleep.