Overview: When Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles) steals black ops files from the CIA, she brings Jason Bourne out of hiding to help uncover the truth. Along the way Bourne comes up against Head of the CIA’s Cyber Division Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), as well as an assassin (Vincent Cassel) with a personal score to settle. Universal Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 123 minutes.
Old Hat: An interrogation takes place while evading government agents in a crowded place; a CIA agent suspects that her target may be innocent; an assassin builds a personal rivalry with the hero; an old white man deceives and manipulates in the name of national security and patriotism. Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, you might have watched the Bourne trilogy before. Jason Bourne may have the most honest title this year, as the film gives you everything you would expect from that character and little more. But this is the skeleton of a Jason Bourne movie, with the shaky cam action, conspiracy plot and Moby’s “Extreme Ways” all appearing once again, without any of the spark that made those movies so watchable. It seems like a post-Snowden world is ripe for his return, but all we really get are offhand remarks like “This is the biggest leak since Snowden”, as well as some uncharacteristically dunderheaded dialogue that hints toward more interesting questions of privacy and freedom without developing them. Worst of all, they aren’t even relevant to the hero, whose personal stakes in the narrative are barely connected. However, a chase sequence set amidst an anti-austerity protest in Athens works extremely well, blending the propulsive action with the series’ distrust of authority in an inventive and thrilling way. Director Paul Greengrass is still an impressive filmmaker, but Jason Bourne feels like a b-side to a series that has already given us three films that worked as well individually as they did as a trilogy.
New Tricks: While Jason Bourne doesn’t have the same sense of innovation as The Bourne Identity (or its two sequels) had when they were released in the early 2000s, there are some new elements that are interesting. Riz Ahmed brings subtlety and intensity to his role as a Zuckerberg internet billionaire type, and I wish we had more of him. His character, as well as his side of the narrative, turns out to be more decorative than an integral element of the film thematically or plot-wise. Tommy Lee Jones’ CIA director brings nothing new to the table, but Jones seems to be having more fun with the role than he has any in years, reveling in the supercilious attitude that lurks under his exhausted demeanour. (Never have I been more sold on the idea of him playing comic book villain Norman Osborn.) It’s getting a little repetitive to say this with every one of her films, but Alicia Vikander is the movie’s MVP. Her performance isn’t showy, but it is a transformative one that I found hard to relate to her previous work. At first she appears to take on the role that Pamela Landy filled in the previous entries, but she always keeps you guessing. Like Ahmed, she is given little to do, but makes the most of the material in building a character that is difficult to get a complete read on – is she a cold villain? Is she sympathetic, or is she playing everyone? The ambiguity of the character, as well as her (again, all too brief) chemistry with Matt Damon, is the only real compelling reason to continue the story in a possible fifth installment.
Identity Crisis: While James Bond was struggling to stay relevant, driving invisible cars through ice palaces, Jason Bourne took his initials and reinvigorated action filmmaking in Hollywood. It’s no coincidence that Casino Royale brought things back to basics five years later. This installment’s only real lasting effect on the series is that it is now significantly easier to pick the worst one; bringing nothing new except for its profound ordinariness. One of my favourite things about the original series were the moments of affection and melancholy that delivered humanity amidst the chaotic violence– something sadly missing here. The action set pieces here are exciting, but are host to some of the weaker work we’ve seen from Greengrass, some of it falling into the incoherence his shaky cam style tended to avoid in the past. The stakes are often stated, but rarely felt. A confrontation between Bourne and a vengeful assassin (Vincent Cassel) has beautiful cinematography and is full of rage – but I didn’t feel that emotional intensity. Instead, I often felt disconnected, and without that investment there’s little to latch on to. Julia Stiles returns in an all too brief role, setting the plot in motion, reminding the audience of the heights the rest of the series reached, before leaving us to a movie that has no tricks up its sleeve. The series went out with a bang, but returns to find itself old-fashioned; struggling to remain relevant and construct an identity appropriate for modern times.
Overall: With nearly ten years passing since The Bourne Ultimatum, it’s a shame that Jason Bourne does so little to justify its own existence. It has the unfortunate position of being compared to three great films, and its few innovations fail to elevate it beyond mediocrity. A solid action thriller, but ultimately one that feels extraneous.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures