Ten years on from the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne, now apparently fully aware of his history, is passing time knocking out beefcakes in single punches on the Greek/Albanian border then having a breakdown around the corner.
This is a man without a mission, without a purpose just coasting from illegal boxing ring to illegal boxing ring. This Jason Bourne is not the Jason Bourne of the original trilogy. Unfortunately, the statement applies to both the character and the film.
Bourne’s pugilistic pastime is disturbed when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), now fighting against her former employers, breaks into the CIA’s servers and discovers new information about Bourne’s recruitment into Operation Treadstone. Information that puts into doubt the story he has pieced together over the first three films. This attracts the attention of Heather Lee’s (Alicia Vikander) Head of Cyber and CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).
So far this has the hallmarks of a classic Bourne film formula. Bourne is out of the game, gets dragged back in against his will, shadowy espionage types and impromptu fights ensue. New spy agency heads are just as bad and corrupt as the old ones; perennially suspicious of Bourne and itching to shoot first and ask questions never. Unfortunately, this is not a classic Bourne film by any stretch of the imagination.
The film’s main flaw is abandoning any sense of continuity. The original trilogy was all tied together by Bourne’s overarching motivation to ‘remember’. Each film showed Bourne uncovering something new about himself. The first showed him trying to remember the basics: his name, his job. The second probed a little deeper: his first victims, the consequences and his emotional state, whilst the third took a sledgehammer to reveal all the final details of how Jason Bourne was formed.
All these reveals could have very easily become stale and irritating, a sign diminishing returns. However thanks to extensive character overlap between the three films. Brian Cox and Chris Cooper appearing in the first two and having a working relationship with Joan Allen’s Pam Landy, there was a suggestion that everything really was connected – that these characters genuinely were involved in Jason Bourne’s story before the film decided to shine a light on them. It was clunky at times, but it worked well enough to strengthen the feeling that Bourne’s identity really was organic rather than made up as each film went a long.
In Jason Bourne, we have no overlapping characters, except Nicky Parsons, and her role is solely to launch the main drive of this film. Instead, we have new players who apparently have long-standing personal vendettas and histories with Bourne. The film barely tries to make these relationships satisfactory or even remotely fleshed out, thus making the new information feel very artificial. It rankles that these characters, who were never mentioned in the original trilogy, have somehow managed to have a profound influence on the creation of Jason Bourne without his or our knowing – especially when Bourne himself says in one of his very, very few lines, “I remember everything.”
The main reason Bourne has so few lines is another reason why this film isn’t really a Bourne film – a lot of the time, it’s not really about him at all. It’s not about anything really. Bourne gets dragged back into the fold just as Director Dewey is about to close some shady deal with a social network billionaire (Riz Ahmed) that would allow the CIA to spy on everyone through the latter’s tech. Vikander’s Lee is playing her own political long-game, whilst another assassin (Vincent Cassel) has a personal vendetta against Bourne. It’s all a bit paint-by-numbers, particularly noticeable since these beats in the first three films. Now they are firmly hackneyed tropes badly explored.
Cassel’s personal vendetta, tortuously concocted and messily delivered, is a good illustration of the fourth (hang on, I mean fifth – sorry Jeremy Renner) instalment’s failings, acting as nice contrast to Bourne’s interaction with Clive Owen’s Professor in the Bourne Identity. Cassel’s assassin was physically tortured as a direct result of Bourne’s actions and he perceives him to be a traitor to the programme and to the country. The film wants us to fear him because he is somehow different to the other assassins, because this time, it’s personal. We don’t, not even after the film goes out of its way to dedicate screen-time and exposition to the character.
Clive Owen appears in The Bourne Identity for under five minutes, yet has more of an impact on Bourne and the viewer. “Look at us. Look at what they make you give,” he sputters to Bourne as he dies in front of him. These words, probably more than any others, have a massive impact on Bourne. So much so that he recants those very words at the end of the third film. They have haunted Bourne throughout his journey for the truth. The Professor had no vendetta, no background and yet, his humanity and self-awareness were clearer and more convincing in those few words than Cassel’s assassin could deliver in the whole of a two-hour film.
Even the film’s action and fight scenes did not feel like vintage Bourne. Instead they felt like vintage Bond. Bourne was always presented as a lateral thinker, an improviser who rolled with the punches: a rolled up magazine is deadlier than a gun, a Bic pen is mightier than a sword. The fights were always intimate, gritty, messy and brutal. They proved such a hit that they actually directly influenced the James 2006 Bond reboot Casino Royale. In Jason Bourne the fights are big – in the early parts of the film there is a full blown riot – visually stunning, intense but more Bond from Spectre than Bourne. As the action pieces escalate, and they really do escalate, they start to feel indulgent, enjoyable but mind-numbing.
Indulgent is not an adjective you would usually use to describe a Bourne film.