Director: Paul Greengrass
Stars: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones
Movies take a long time to make, even within the ever churning gears of the Hollywood machine, and so there’s no way that Universal or the producers of the latest Jason Bourne film (woodenly titled Jason Bourne) could possibly have anticipated the recent and tragic events that occurred in Nice, France. Yet the horrific scenes conjured in the news reports minutes after these events are brought to mind with bludgeoning indifference during this film’s high-octane final act, souring the palette and raising the question: just what value does a human life have in the world of Jason Bourne?
The answer seems to be absolutely none.
This fifth outing sees Matt Damon’s much celebrated return. Poor Jeremy Renner. His work in the largely dismissed, totally bonkers but eminently watchable fourth entry was just fine. It was a more sci-fi iteration of the spy franchise, silly to its core but not a bad film when all’s said and done. Well he’s out and Damon’s back in. As is director Paul Greengrass, wobbling his camera at Damon’s poutiest pouty face in a concerted effort to bring the grit back to the series.
It’s overplayed to say the least. The shaky-cam action that typified the series and helped build its success is probably one of the biggest draws for faithful audiences, but at this point it’s decidedly uninspired and, thanks to a repetitive script that essentially replays the same situation over and over with mildly different geography, thunderingly unoriginal. The formula goes something like this: the CIA try to track Jason Bourne with a dodgy hitman (Vincent Cassel) and a techy darkroom, Bourne evades capture like a human bouncing ball, things escalate from foot chase to car chase. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The storyline this time is a familiar remix of “this time it’s personal” tropes that involve mildly rewriting history, with Jason suddenly remembering that, oh yeah, THEY KILLED MY FATHER after hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) swipes some top-secret files (which are actually labelled Black Operations in the CIA databases. I mean, c’mon).
So it’s time for revenge on chatterbox CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones – looking so craggy-faced these days that he resembles a Star Trek extra in full make-up, bless him) and the aforementioned assassin played by Cassel; a formless, emotionless husk of a character so generic that he’s only ever referred to as The Asset and who could’ve been played by absolutely anyone.
More promising is the introduction of Alicia Vikander as Dewey’s protegé Heather Lee; a bright faced and ambitious young woman looking to bring the CIA into the 21st century. Vikander has proven herself one of the best new actors to have broken through in recent years, and she adds some much-needed credibility to this spy hokum. Her character’s arc, however, ultimately falls in line with the rather depressing, even nihilistic politics that the film offers to us; everyone can and will be tainted by violence, and principals are only principals as long as they’re self-serving.
On the peripheries of all of this is a B-story about a social media CEO (Riz Ahmed, making hay from his exposure in Nightcrawler) who is about to launch an incredibly vague new platform for his users that promises to keep the government out of the loop (how? doesn’t matter). Dewey is of course leaning on him to allow the CIA access for the good of all mankind. This sideline has the potential to make Jason Bourne actually relevant to modern-day concerns, but Greengrass’ film frustratingly fails to take the initiative, keeping things as woolly as possible, presumably to avoid dividing audiences in our evidently divided society.
The upshot of this is that the film is forced to rely on its brute force for resolution. Too bad there’s virtually nothing to invest in, apart from the gratuitously established notion that Cassel’s Asset is a Very Bad Man. He kills and kills and kills without hesitation (leading to that scene which so distastefully echoes Nice). But he is by no means the only character to do so if the ends serve their purposes. It is here that the film starts to wade into moral muck, as the bigger picture presented is that there’s really little alternative.
This is an incredibly violent 12A action thriller, and, because each and every character here is a mere cipher of self-interest, not a particularly satisfying one. When Bourne and the Asset start beating each other to a pulp as they’re inevitably set to do, there’s little incentive for the audience to care, let alone pick apart what’s even happening in between all the frantic cuts presented in maddening hand-held wobblyvision.
Credit where it’s due, this is about as pacy a trip to the cinema as I can remember experiencing. These two hours blip by with barely a pause taken, so, as a popcorn guzzler, Greengrass has assembled a winner for sure, propelled along by exactly the kind of 90’s-esque techno soundtrack you’d expect (and with Moby on the end credits as ever). But even before it’s done it’s hard not to think that for all it’s fast-paced pyrotechnics, Jason Bourne is a rather dismal, even hateful proposition, reflecting a worldview in which literally anyone and everyone is disposable.
And if your major reason for returning to this series is to see Damon stepping back into the spotlight, it may be worth considering that he is, at the end of the day, as much a cipher in this as everyone else; ambling doggedly through the narrative with barely 40 lines of dialogue (if that), every bit as blithely myopic as Cassel’s characterless killer. Jason Bourne is like an action thriller built by a computer. Unfortunately that computer might be Skynet.