'Jason Bourne' Review

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
3

It's been nine years and one failed spinoff since Matt Damon seemingly swam away for the last time as Jason Bourne. But while the original trilogy ultimately got Bourne's memories back, put him face to face with why he really became a CIA assassin and brought him full circle, such a neat and tidy ending ultimately wasn't good enough for Universal.

As such, Jason Bourne is back as the latest sequel/attempt to restart a franchise all over again this year. While there have certainly been worse examples of that troubling trend this year alone, this is still the worst example of the Bourne series under Damon and Paul Greengrass. Nevertheless, it is still because of them and a few newcomers that something worthwhile endures anyway, even if it may not completely sell the notion that the series really needs to keep going.

In the nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum, Bourne/David Webb has wound up off the grid and gone on the underground bare knuckle fighting circuit in Greece. As for the only other survivor of the three films, Nicky Parsons is now hacking for a Wikileaks style group, and finds classified CIA files that herald a brand new Treadstone/Blackbrier like program and secrets about the old one, particularly involving Bourne's dead father. Naturally, bringing this to Bourne's attention puts him back on the agency's radar, as director Robert Dewey, cyber chief Heather Lee and an asset who has personal ties to Bourne lead the way pursuing him from Greece, Berlin, London and finally to Las Vegas.

Jason Bourne helpfully begins with a quick little clip show of The Bourne Ultimatum's final confrontation to remind everyone where Bourne left off, as if they didn't already know. However, familiarity with the original films may actually be a problem, since it makes it easier to point out that they did so many of Jason Bourne's plot points before.

Like in The Bourne Ultimatum, the CIA is upgrading Treadstone into a brand new and even more dangerous program. Like in The Bourne Supremacy, Bourne is brought out of deep cover hiding and a woman very close to him gets killed to set him off. Like in both Supremacy and Ultimatum, there is a woman who opposes an older CIA agent that wants Bourne dead, with Alicia Vikander's Heather in place of Joan Allen's Landy. And there can't be a Bourne film without a sinister CIA chief or a deadly primary field asset, with Tommy Lee Jones's Dewey following in Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and David Strathairn's footsteps while Vincent Cassel takes over for Clive Owen, Karl Urban and Edgar Ramirez.

They can't reuse the device of Bourne slowly recovering memories anymore, but they still have him going back and revisiting his past anyway. In this case, while he now remembers his father and how he was killed, remembering everything doesn't mean he knows everything, as Nicky said in a line from the trailer that was cut out of the movie. However, these newfound revelations are more of a near fatal flaw than the remixed plots.

The Bourne Ultimatum's final recovered memories put the burden on Bourne, not just the agency, for volunteering and not questioning authority in the quest to protect America in the first place. Since it was released at the tail end of the Bush era in 2007, that kind of message was particularly resonant then. In fact, Bourne was really the original Edward Snowden when he gave away all the program's dirty secrets that leaked to the public, which is ironic given the Snowden references in Jason Bourne.

However, any complexity from those final moments is all but erased in Jason Bourne, now that they've retconned it so Bourne was still manipulated into volunteering all along. Letting him off the hook like that may have helped set a new movie in motion, and may help restart the franchise as a whole, but it also somewhat undermines what came before. Damon and Greengrass made the ideal ending nine years ago, so partly cheapening it now to justify a restart is either an error on their part, Universal's or perhaps all of the above.

That shaky foundation is a problem, but overcoming it isn't insurmountable. The bedrock of the Bourne series is still action, and Greengrass has been among the best at it over the last 12 years or so. Yet as it turns out, Greengrass is more hit and miss this time.

The film can be divided into four major action scenes, with the first and last being the biggest ones. Greengrass piles on the visual chaos in a chase through a riot plagued Greece, and especially in a final chase through the roads of Las Vegas. But the mad scrambles in Greece are visually striking without really being that suspenseful, and the demolition derby in Vegas seems to have Greengrass borrowing from the Fast and the Furious playbook at a few destructive points.

In truth, Greengrass's most suspenseful moments are in the non-blockbuster action scenes. A confrontation with Nicky's Julian Assange like boss is now particularly timely, thanks to recent real life events. And Greengrass builds up the tension in a late second act sequence in Berlin, as well as the first part of the Vegas finale before the car crashes kick in. That finally helps kick the film into a higher gear midway through, along with a brutal hand-to-hand final showdown.

By the standards of Greengrass's past Bourne chapters and even the original Bourne Identity, this may not raise the high bar of the Bourne action legacy. Yet while Greengrass is not at his usual heights, he is bailed out by Damon still being at his.

It was already clear that Universal went nowhere in trying to have Jeremy Renner take over for Damon in The Bourne Legacy. On the off chance that they ever think letting Damon go again is a good idea, Jason Bourne is one more bit of proof about how unwise that would be. While Damon has fewer lines than ever before, he still conveys everything he has to through his face, body language, the words he actually does use, and of course his fists and kicks as well.

Damon has never had to keep a Bourne movie afloat to this extent before, but Jason Bourne is fortunate that he's there to do it. Seeing him back in Bourne mode one more time makes it easier to endure the drop off in other areas, and is the best if not the only argument to keep bringing him in for more.

There is one other potential plus in starting over, as Jason Bourne represents a changing of the guard surrounding Bourne. This is a different world than the one Bourne supposedly left nine years ago, primarily when it comes to cyber warfare and security. While Jones's Dewey is the latest in a long line of crusty old CIA chiefs covering their tracks in trying to kill Bourne, perhaps this time it really is the end of the line for their era in charge. At the least, Jones' quiet, sinister drawl helps the old school of Bourne villains go out on a high note.

The new school of the agency, and perhaps of the future of the Bourne series, is brought in through Vikander's Heather. While she is set up to be a more merciful and open minded alternative to Dewey, like Landy in the last two original Bourne films, Heather shows herself to have a more self-serving agenda. In straddling the line between the lesser of two evils and a potentially even bigger threat in the long run if the series continues, the cagey Vikander becomes the biggest if only breath of completely fresh air Jason Bourne has. And given how unceremoniously Julia Stiles is sent out after four films of service, getting a new primary female lead like Vikander comes right on time.

This entire year has been filled with sequels and reboots that didn’t really turn out to be completely necessary. A case can easily be made that Jason Bourne falls in that category, although it isn’t the most egregious example. The benefits of having Damon back, of having Greengrass back in the moments where the action works, and of having Vikander come on board eventually outweigh the negatives that came from how they got there, if just barely.

If this is the beginning of a whole new series of Bourne films, at least Universal will get to restart with Damon this time, assuming there are no hiccups and the box office is big enough to justify it. Those factors may do more to justify more Bourne than much of Jason Bourne itself, but there is some promise in the new potential direction that’s set up. Still, Greengrass or someone else will have to do more to avoid squandering the potential of a fifth Damon/Bourne film than he did with the fourth.