Jason Bourne is Haunted by the Past (Three Movies)

By Dan Cava

July 30, 2016

For Jason Bourne, remembering has always been a painful process. Shaky, often violent images from the past push Bourne into action, and after hours of running and punching and truth seeking, the solved mystery only makes him long for a time when none of this ever happened.

We know how you feel, Jason.

Jason Bourne is a surprisingly uninspired retread of the far superior movies that preceded it. (Retreadstone? Anyone? Is this thing on?) It’s a surprise because, like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal skull, another famously delayed and misguided fourth installment, the original creative team is intact, so the deck is seemingly not stacked against this one.

Universal Pictures

After the series’ eye-opening first movie, director Paul Greengrass took the helm from Doug Liman and created the two sequels that made Bourne a phenomenon. Stripping away Liman’s mild art-house sensibility while retaining jet-fueled inner core, he distilled the franchise into a clever, crunchy action-movie machine. Matt Damon’s reluctant assassin-with-identity-issues became the perfect postmodern hero, an analog warrior battling the surveillance state with exploding toasters, nondescript clothing, and very sharp ballpoint pens. With Greengrass back at the wheel and Damon back in the trenchcoat, it seemed like the stars had literally realigned for continuing the saga.

As the movie opens, the series’ familiar elements parade by and the promise of relief from the comic book movie cavalcade seems reborn (ahem). The digital font, the mournful clarinet theme followed by clacking percussion and pulsing violins. On-screen text placing us in some cosmopolitan European capital city. Julia Stiles clandestinely inserting a USB drive into an firewalled computer. Matt Damon, still dead-eyed, still searching, still dangerous. Yes, we’re thinking, thank God. It’s a Bourne movie.

But as the parade continues the familiarity starts to harden into facsimile. Another fractured memory inconveniently bubbling to the surface. Another helicopter shot of Langley, where technocrats struggle to keep another opaquely titled black-ops scheme under wraps. Another blue-hued room housing government agents who look at screens that say “linked to Jason Bourne” in large red text and yell, “we think it’s Bourne, sir!” These are the ingredients, sure, but they seem half-baked and perfunctory this time around. Were there no other colors thought to be suitable for the blue-hued room?

The deja vu sets in hard when the action set pieces start careening by. Normally the crown jewels of the Bourne movies, the movie’s bustling chase sequences seem overshot and underdeveloped. There’s a lot of moving into position, a lot of earpiece-based communication, a lot of straining to see through a throng of bystanders. The score’s violins pulse away but mostly at the service of people walking through hallways. The Bourne payoffs, those typically ingenious misdirections that drive the blue-hued room dwellers into agonized fits of “what happened, where’d he go?” – those punchlines rarely seem to come, and when they do, they pale in comparison to their franchise predecessors.

Jason Bourne (2016)
Universal Pictures

The series’ revolving door of great actors playing Bourne’s intelligence community antagonists produces a fresh crop of A-listers relegated to the same roles as the previous A-listers. Again, this is par for the course, but the cast can’t crack the confines of their underwritten roles and dialogue. Tommy Lee Jones plays the crustiest of the franchise’s crusty CIA bigwigs, the deep bags under his eyes weighed even further down by the burden of Bourne. French star Vincent Cassel fills the role of the “asset,” the highly skilled European operative whose asset is destined to be kicked by our hero. The often exceptional Alicia Vikander is miscast for the same reason anyone in their mid-twenties whose character is handed the keys to a major global manhunt would be miscast.

And then there’s the man of mystery himself. Matt Damon still owns this transformation, his scowl and controlled lethality so unlike the smiling everyman we see on the talk show circuit. Damon still brings an extraordinary dark empathy to Bourne, and the character’s bruised humanity intertwines expertly with his bone breaking skills. The screenplay, co-authored by Greengrass and series editor Christopher Rouse, simply fails to give Damon enough interesting things to do. Always the politico, Greengrass seems far more intent on recreating the Greek austerity riots than he does on coming up with inventive reasons for our characters to be there. Where in previous movies Bourne would make exhilarating use of a hardcover book or a residential gas line, Jason Bourne’s great skill here seems to be “weaving through crowds with determination.” He has maybe thirty lines in the whole film, which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t so painfully plot heavy. The movie’s stark title becomes oddly appropriate: a lone man full of awesome power, adrift in a mediocre movie.

Universal Pictures

It’s not all a waste. That riot in Greece is impressively staged, despite the lackluster action.  The plot’s inclusion of social media seems refreshingly contemporary against the movie’s bundle of Bush-era anachronisms. And with only thirty minutes to spare, the film somehow manages to make the old magic new again. The film’s climactic Las Vegas car chase, subterranean one-on-one beatdown, and last minute story switcheroos are mesmerizing enough to remind us how good the previous three movies were, and how good the previous ninety minutes could have been.

“I remember everything,” Jason Bourne says in series’ fantastic third movie, The Bourne Ultimatum. So do we, Jason. And like you, we’re still not happy.

Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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