Matt Damon is excellent in his return to his Bourne identity, but the film he’s wrapped in has too many flaws to be called good. If you want thrills, violence, and action so intense you can barely follow what’s going on, Jason Bourne has your back. If you need your spy thrillers to make more sense than a mid-level Bond entry, look elsewhere.
The plot, in a nutshell:
Burdened with all his memories of his career as a robotic CIA assassin, Jason Bourne travels the world in anonymity, winning illegal bare-knuckles fights as a way to appease his guilt and appear onscreen with no shirt. Meanwhile, his erstwhile ex-CIA ally Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles) is trying to expose CIA black ops malfeasance in connection with an unexplained person who is maybe a Julian Assange Wikileaks type. Or maybe not; this film doesn’t bother with details. When her hacking of the CIA goes bad, Nikki tracks down the untrackdownable Bourne, who doesn’t want to help her, but is drawn in by a couple of factors, including a desire to get a look at his full CIA record.
So the CIA wants to kill Bourne, except for youthful cyber intelligence chief and deadpan Natalie Portman stand-in Alicia Vikander, who thinks this guy—this guy—is ripe for re-recruitment. But her boss, CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), has an assassin with a grudge against Bourne tasked with killing our hero. And it becomes all about revenge and double-crosses as the issues of justice, democracy and exposing CIA crimes completely vanish from the picture.
All through this, the CIA chief is arguing with a smug Silicon Valley social media billionaire about continuing to use his unexplained global platform to spy on everyone, all the time, in unexplained ways. This gets a lot of screen time but is not really resolved.
In the end, Bourne must face three foes, in succession: Dewey, the CIA veteran who in some vague way has a past with Bourne; the vague assassin called only the Asset (Vincent Cassel), who gets no dialogue or character development, but has a grudge against Bourne, and against whom Bourne has a grudge; and the CIA cyber-gal, whose vague motivation seems to be “get promoted,” but her method of going about this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. He faces them. People live, people die, vague conversations are had, and there’s a small, final gotcha. The end.
Returning director Paul Greengrass creates an excellent visual world, and uses his camera, his settings and his actors with great skill. This is a fantastic looking film, and it’s again a surprise how remakably bad-ass Matt Damon can be in this role. There’s almost always a comedy edge, and a particular softness or vulnerability as part of his tightly wrapped screen personae, but here, he’s just a driven, emotionless killer who’d like to kill less often. Unfortunately, Alicia Vikander is even less emotive, and her motivations and allegiances are always so opaque, it’s impossible to care about her.
A haze of violence
The director’s worst sin is in the action sequences, and it’s the same sin that every modern filmmaker commits in the eternal race to one-up the previous action blockbuster: The chase and fight scenes go on too long, and are paced with such intensity that they’re nearly incomprehensible. This is especially true here in a Las Vegas car chase, where all stakes seem to vanish as the camera’s blurry jumping from car to car, screeching skid to multi-vehicle pileup, is so devoid of a sense of continuity it’s hard to know what’s going on. It’s all a blur, with no sense of progress or relationship from one shot to the next. If there were storyboards, they might as well have been shuffled like playing cards.
Maybe I sound like an old man harping on that, but I’ll say this: After the Vegas chase, there’s a one-on-one fistfight in a storm drain. That fight is shot with tight closeups, hyperfast cutting, and an unsteady camera. This is a technique that conveys violence too fast, too savage, to comprehend, and it’s an effective way to put the viewer right into the middle of the fistfight that’s tightly contained in time and space. But the exact same technique is used on the extended car chases that sprawl across cities and end with major status quo changes in the story. So there’s an actual story to be told in those sequences. If your technique is designed to make it impossible to understand what’s happening, you’re not telling a story, you’re just flashing a bunch of emotionally arousing images, like we’re Malcolm McDowell with his eyes pried open in A Clockwork Orange. I don’t think that scene was originally presented as something to emulate.
Further, the film abandons storylines without fruition. The only moral issues in the story are in Julia Stiles attempt to expose CIA black ops, and the Silicon Valley Dude’s desire to stop secretly serving the national security apparatus, and to expose it if necessary. Both points are abandoned. The former because, while Bourne wants answers to his personal mysteries, he has no desire for justice on a larger scale; and the latter because events overtake Sili Valley Entrepreneur and it’s unclear whether he’ll get out from under the CIA’s thumb, or even wants to try anymore. It’s not deliberate moral ambiguity, it’s just a lack of interest in good storytelling. This film is about Jason Bourne running through a rat maze of violence, and any illusion of “story” is just decoration on the walls of the maze.
Lazy, thrill-driven storytelling is not storytelling
Things that are unclear in this movie:
- How does Nikki track down Bourne? There’s no sign they had any communication protocol set, and she locates him in the middle of nowhere, bare-knuckle fighting for, presumably, cash and some kind of karmic easing of his post-career guilt.
- Why does Vikander, as cyber-sorceress Heather Lee, so strongly want to try to return as dangerous, damaging and justifiably embittered a foe as Bourne to the CIA fold? What’s in it for her that she goes so far as to work with Bourne against her own bosses?
- What is her hinted-at relationship with the dorky Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and why should we care?
What is Tommy Lee Jones’ personal history with Bourne, that he seems so certain would always return to haunt him, and why not, y’know, explain that thing if you’re gonna keep mentioning it?
- What does Heather mean when she makes a generational statement about that rogue Sili Valley beardo and her being a different sort, one that she knows how to handle. “These are my people,” she says. Meaning … swaggering, amoral, self-serving, loose-canon liars, or what? Because I’m pretty sure the old-school intelligence community still has a patent on that.
- Why would Sili Valley Social Media Giant Guy, knowing he’s deeply in bed with the CIA (on what I’d understand to be more practically and legally an NSA issue), make huge public declarations about privacy? (Arrogance, I suppose. That’s plausible.)
- But why would that guy, trying to hide his collusion with the CIA, agree to appear onstage with the CIA director at a tech conference?
- Why is Vikander, some kind of Stanford-grad computer whiz, given operational control to run missions, both from Langley and in the field, tasks for which she cannot conceivably be trained? Missions involving an unstoppable rogue assassin who has defeated veteran CIA leaders at every turn, in three previous movies?
But here’s a mystery so large it’s pretty show-stopping: When Heather asks Jones to cancel a plan to assassinate Bourne in London, in favor of letting her try to bring him in, why does Dewey say yes? He actually lies, sending Heather to London with half a dozen operatives, including “the Asset,” who is supposedly just backup. But Dewey runs the Asset on a counter-mission to just kill Bourne—a plan that requires the Asset to shoot down four CIA operatives on an unsanctioned operation on British soil and just leave them there for authorities to find. Such a move casually murders Dewey’s own valued people, pointlessly burns a promising young employee, and risks an international incident with our closest ally, who’d certainly complain by back channels, even if the incident didn’t make it into the papers. Either way, Dewey would get a hell of a dressing down in the Oval Office.
What makes this a particularly moronic plan whose sole purpose is to create false plot excitement is that Dewey’s’ more realistic alternative would be to say “no.” I know millennials don’t like hierarchical organizations, but I’m pretty sure the CIA chief can still just tell his overly ambitious cyber-whatever officer, “no,” and not risk all that.
In sum, if I were to only discuss the film as a visual execution of a script, with no discussion of that story’s quality, I’d probably give the movie four stars for an excellent cast, mostly great direction, strong soundtrack and sound design, and a generally compelling style. It would lose points only for completely jettisoning storytelling in its action sequences, in favor of the modern need to absolutely overwhelm the viewer. But story matters, and if I take the lame, vague script into account, this film only adds up to half a movie, the equivalent of watching those pointless, inhumane bare-knuckle matches Jason Bourne seems so fond of.
What does Jason Bourne want, in all this? At first, nothing he can articulate other than to be left alone. Then, to solve one key mystery of his past involving his father; then to get personal revenge at any cost; then, nothing he articulates other than, presumably, to be left alone. That’s not much of a character arc, and as well-crafted as this movie looks on the screen, after this story, I hope Bourne gets his wish, and we all leave him alone.