You Know His Name
Before any sequel is undertaken, one must ask what is the reason for its existence? Is there more for this character to see, say, do, learn? Or is this just a case of someone in a suit saying “it was successful and will make money?” I mean, from a storytelling point of view, this is basic filmmaking but I think we can safely assume that money trumps all and while there is an interesting story to tell somewhere in here, it’s buried under layers of narrative mediocrity.
Twelve years after the events in The Bourne Ultimatum, ex-Treadstone operative Nicky Parsons [Julia Stiles] learns of a new wave of CIA undercover operations which heavily utilises widely circulated smart technology. Caught hacking into their records, senior CIA agent Heather Lee [Vikander] and CIA director Robert Dewey [Jones] initiate a search under the impression that Parsons may contact her former colleague, Jason Bourne [Damon]. Sure enough, Bourne is drawn back into the world of espionage as Nicky reveals his father was more involved in the Treadstone project than once believed.
Matt Damon returns in fine form as the title character, reminding us why trying to replace him with another agent (in the form of The Bourne Legacy’s Jeremy Renner) wasn’t the most viable of options as a lot of this series’ success is owed to Damon’s charm. In decent shape, compelling, emotionally driven, just as engaging as ever, this is one of those rare returns after a prolonged period wherein you can still tell it’s the same character (recent Die Hard sequels, I’m looking at you). The new additions are also a welcome touch. Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as the man you love to hate, with his craggy granddad face, sly southern charm but ultimately unscrupulous self-serving agenda. We’ve also got Alicia Vikander as the energetic, zealous operations head, Heather Lee who displays an intriguing mix of honour and ambition and the cold, vindictive assassin with a grudge in the form of the ever impressive Vincent Cassel. The film is also neatly directed, if a bit too heavy on the fucking shaky cam.. but one could argue that’s a key element of the way the Bourne films have been presented. Once again, sound design continues to be very strong, aiding the extremely fast-paced editing to form a cohesive flow and John Powell’s score hits the right notes in the right places to draw out the emotion and energy the various sequences require. So why the 2 out of 5? What I’ve just described sounds like a solid action thriller, why isn’t this reflected in my final score? In truth, it’s solely down to the fact that while the various components are capable they do nothing to elevate this film above anything more than a cash-grab.
Comparisons between the Bourne series and the James Bond franchise have been drawn pretty much from its inception. At the time of The Bourne Identity’s release, Bond was quipping his way through Die Another Day (effectively killing the franchise) and this gritty, gadget-free spy thriller was an entertaining breath of fresh air. The sequels upped the ante while delivering high-octane action and revealing more about the birth and evolution of Jason’s mysterious career. While Bond was in dire need of an overhaul, it had the range and spectrum to do so, Bourne does not. See, for the character of James Bond there will always be another mission or another book to adapt. Bourne was a rogue agent searching for personal answers and after three films how many vital questions can he have left? Cue the laughable line in almost every trailer “Knowing who you are isn’t the same as knowing everything.” So while this film is incredibly competent in its execution the justification for its release simply doesn’t hold up. As time goes on, societal motivators evolve and speculative fiction needs to adapt. In other words, if you produced a drama in the 80’s explaining that guns were banned in America after a child shot another child, your movie would look ridiculous now – as this happens fairly frequently and guess what, still no gun control. Or a 90’s film about retaliation to a terrorist attack crushing the uprising in a few days; we simply know that’s not the case. As such, this film needed to acknowledge that in the space of time between The Bourne Ultimatum and Jason Bourne, the world has evolved: things like cyber privacy, hacks, wikileaks, Snowden and the Panama papers are a regular occurrence and yet, no global change (at least, not in a way that films portray). So this begs the question, what is Bourne’s end goal here? Are we talking about a vigilante hell-bent on exposing a corrupt government body, simultaneously jeopardising any active mission or is he just a selfish individual who wants information about his own past and revenge? Either way, this hero (of sorts) is a bit of a tricky one to root for. As stated earlier, somewhere in this film is a decent story about an agent in the cold who instinctively wants to belong and serve his country but it’s so tied down by its own backstory, black ops project codenames, interchangeable evil heads of departments and double crossing that who the hell knows or cares anymore? Would we honestly watch a film about Bourne following orders and leading missions or would that fly in the face of everything we think we know about this character? Again, maybe an interesting avenue to explore but at this point, I doubt any studio would greenlight a story five films deep into a successful franchise that completely overhauls everything.
A lot of the problems stem from the fact that the Bourne trilogy, as written by Robert Ludlum was not set in a high-tech digital world. It was a spy thriller that relied on languages, abilities, skills, contacts and agents on the ground. You could get away with that in an early 2000s film but in all honesty, the world doesn’t necessarily work that way anymore; technology rules all and the world is under constant surveillance. Without the loose inspiration of the original books, we ended up with a spin-off that was completely acceptable but wholly boring, failing to expand upon anything of real worth or interest in this universe and now this unimpressive sequel. It seems fairly obvious that a lot of studios pushing nostalgia projects don’t seem to realise or appreciate why the originals were so successful in the first place. Echoing what I stated in my review for Independence Day: Resurgence, The Bourne Identity was smart, gripping and most importantly doing something unique. But being a pioneer, it inspired other studios to start buying up gritty European spy properties (and inadvertently caused Bond to reboot itself in a quasi-similar vein) and as such we saw a huge resurgence of John Le Carre adaptations. Thus Jason Bourne’s espionage and subterfuge isn’t anything new and the explosions, collisions and fist fights have become equally tired; which is an odd thing to say.
The truth is, I don’t think the Bourne setting is strong enough for a massive sprawling franchise (nor should it need to be) but it’s being pressured into conforming to that mould. Had this feature come out in 2010 I imagine it would have been more positively received but that window has passed and without creating something really cutting edge or challenging audiences in a unique way, the end product is a bit flat. Whether we’ll get another Bourne film remains to be seen but while I didn’t think there was much more they could milk out for this film, I am certain that well is now completely dry.
29th July 2016
The Scene To Look Out For:
From the first instalment, the Bourne series has promoted itself on a platform of plausibility and realism. Part of the reason people like these films is the thrill of seeing a man escaping a building by slowly and carefully scaling the ledge rather than just diving into an open bin and somehow surviving. Its realism makes the danger closer and the stakes higher. So imagine my disappointment during a high-speed chase where cars are colliding left-and-right and Bourne’s vehicle ends up crumpling into a casino roof but somehow he walks away without so much as a limp. Car chases are mandatory when it comes to Bourne films and yeah, the beaten up cars he gets into turn out to be indestructible tanks but when you trade up from some Soviet-looking Lada to a slick-black Mustang, you step away from the plausibility angle and ironically lose a bit of the magic.
Despite my rather scathing review, Damon still comes out on top. He returns to Bourne as if he never left, the character is just as thrilling as ever and his performance reminds us that he is the quintessential lynchpin to this series’ continuation.
“You don’t get it do you? Privacy is freedom”
In A Few Words:
“A lot of time, money and effort to effectively remake The Bourne Legacy with a more enigmatic lead”