Jason Bourne


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Jason Bourne
"The powerfully cathartic ending of The Bourne Ultimatum is a long shadow to get out of, and this film never quite manages it."

The amnesiac former CIA super-agent Jason Bourne has been off screens since 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, which was directed by Paul Greengrass and co-written by Tony Gilroy, a formidable team which, paired with star Matt Damon, helped turn the Bourne franchise into a bona-fide alternative to the more fantastical, tongue in cheek Bond films (though it is worth pointing out that Doug Liman actually directed the first instalment that kickstarted the entire series: 2002’s The Bourne Identity). Damon and Greengrass were ambiguous for many years about whether or not they would return for another film, and the finale of Ultimatum seemed to close the book perfectly on the character, leaving him floating and possibly dead in New York’s Hudson River, in a scene which deliberately paralleled the opening of the first movie. This conclusion came after Bourne spent three movies breathlessly chasing down the truth about the CIA’s “Treadstone” programme, which had, until his amnesia, turned him into a remorseless and highly-focused killing machine. But given Ultimatum closed with Bourne, his memory regained, triumphantly leaking the secrets of the programme out into the wider world, what more of the story was left to be told? Surely the disappearing of Bourne into those dark waters, like an avenged ghost, was the best way to leave things?

Well, Greengrass and Damon are back with a fifth Bourne film (2012's The Bourne Legacy did not feature Damon’s character and is not referred to at all here, suggesting it is now out of continuity), though writer Tony Gilroy is absent this time around. With Damon once again the troubled, near-silent survivor making do with hardscrabble survival gear cribbed from whatever he can find to add to his kick-ass set of combat skills, and a bevy of intense action sequences shot according to Greegnrass’s now-legendary intensely shaky aesthetic, the film makes the case for its own existence after the franchise has been in cold storage. But only just.

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What lures Bourne out of hiding (he seems to have spent the last few years bare knuckle fighting out in Eastern Europe, and Damon looks suitably grizzled) is the threat of a new CIA programme, one with plenty of post-Snowden flavours. Bourne is made aware of this when former CIA analyst and hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, with little to do) - who was part of the CIA teams tasked with taking Bourne down in the previous movies before going rogue herself - hacks a set of top secret files from the CIA’s databases. Included with these files is yet more detail about the Treadstone programme and, in particular, Bourne’s now-dead father Robert’s connection to it.

Pursued by the gruff and secrecy-hating CIA director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, looking as though he hates the entire planet) who has tasked his new top hacker Heather Lee (a serviceable Alicia Vikander) with tracking this new threat, Nicky desperately turns to Bourne, tempting him to help her with the promise of finally uncovering why he joined Treadstone in the first place. Driven by flashes of memories that go back to his CIA officer father’s strange death in Libya, Bourne finds himself going up against the CIA again, only this time against the backdrop of Dewey’s plan to exploit software guru Aaron Kalloor’s (an underused Riz Ahmed) Deep Dream software via back doors in the coding that will enable the CIA to use it for their own mass surveillance programme.

Though Greengrass is able to build several undeniably exciting action sequences around the always watchable Damon - who probably has even fewer speaking lines here than in the other films yet still manages to project that same compelling air of tortured determination - the film’s real weakness is the lack of a compelling narrative with the right kind of emotional hook. The fact remains that the previous three Bourne films drew much of their strength from letting us watch Bourne chase down the most fundamental truths about himself. We knew as little as he did. His amnesia made him seem vulnerable and human, a counterpoint to his amazing combat skills. It made him different from Bond.

The powerfully cathartic ending of The Bourne Ultimatum, when Bourne was forced to confront the horrific underlying truth of his recruitment into the Treadstone programme, is a long shadow to get out of, and this film never quite manages it. These new revelations about Bourne’s father and his role in Treadstone, simply do not have the same emotional resonance. We have never seen this character on screen and Bourne has never mentioned him, which makes it harder to care. The main mystery of Bourne’s genesis has already been solved. The Treadstone programme’s details were already leaked out in the last film with earth shattering repercussions, making it seem odd that Parsons would be interested in hacking yet more information. This just feels like superfluous plot padding; a trick to get the franchise revved up again.

It also doesn’t help that the absence of Gilroy (Greengrass co-wrote this film with Christopher Rouse) seems to have resulted in avoidable plot holes stinking up the narrative. For example, Tommy Lee Jones’s character takes several decisions in this film that make no sense at all. A sense of repetition is also detectable. After all, we once again have a CIA director who seems able to transcend the law without anyone in his office noticing, including ordering his own personal assassin (Vincent Cassel) to kill people. We also have yet again another secret CIA programme in development with controversial implications, though this time without the real-life background of Bush’s War on Terror giving it allegorical resonance. And we also, in the character of Heather Lee, have another attractive female CIA operative with hacking skills who ends up being sympathetic to Bourne and eventually begins covertly aiding him, though the screenwriters do give Vikander’s character a more ambiguous set of motives than Nicky Parsons.

Still, Greengrass is a dab hand at cooking up some hugely enjoyable chase-and-fight set pieces, which keep to the Bourne formula in that Bourne is usually a figure in constant motion. Rarely can the man stand still for more than two minutes before enemy forces come barging in the door. The first major action sequence takes place during a riot in Athens, with Greengrass’s handheld cameras and fast-moving crowds of extras rushing past our field of vision making for an edgy, immersive experience. As with previous Bourne films, what begins on foot often fluidly morphs into a vehicle chase, with Bourne and Nicky in this scene eventually traversing high-incline streets and stairways on a motorcycle, dodging molotov cocktails as they go.

Even less complex action beats pack a punch under Greengrass’s snappy editing, allied to his clear vision: such as one eye-catching and grisly moment when Bourne is pitched off a rooftop by a bullet impact. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that all these hijinks do have a whiff of the familiar, but that is maybe less Greengrass’s fault than the fact that his aesthetic has been so heavily imitated in the time since he debuted on the franchise. Maybe he could have steadied the camera and eased off the edit button just a little though.

Inevitably, before that Moby Extreme Ways track kicks in again over the credits, the film ends with the suggestion that we might see more Bourne movies. But few franchises are immune from the law of diminishing returns, and the omens are not good here. The Bourne films have, or at least had, a reputation for being superb instead of just serviceable. Perhaps it is best that Bourne stay underground for good this time.

Reviewed on: 01 Aug 2016
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Bourne tries to uncover the secrets from his past.
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Director: Paul Greengrass

Writer: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse, Robert Ludlum

Starring: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Ben Stylianou, Kaya Yuzuki, Matthew O'Neill, Lizzie Phillips

Year: 2016

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Locarno 2016

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If you like this, try:

The Bourne Ultimatum