For the last decade and a half, the Bourne movies were a reliable argument for how the studio blockbuster franchise machine wasn’t completely evil. They had all the watermarks of soulless product: based (barely) on a beach-read book series, these were big-budget summer action movies fronted by a marquee star, providing a new installment every couple of years to retrace the steps and regenerate the revenue. Yet the original Bourne trilogy (and, to a lesser extent, the 2012 spin-off The Bourne Legacy) were proof that within that rubric, writers and directors who cared enough could make movies that marshaled the considerable resources of franchise filmmaking, and come up with films that were intelligent, engrossing, and entertaining. And in this particularly vile summer of mainstream moviemaking – in which the big releases have run the range from outright disasters to merely okay – a new installment seemed like our savior, the Gatsby-esque green light across the bay. Well, Jason Bourne has arrived, like a blaring siren, wooping a warning: they can even fuck these up.
Jason Bourne’s problems start at the foundation, with the very question of its own reason for existence. And I know, I know, no movie has to exist, but the fundamental dilemma of this failed franchise jump-starter is that the trilogy – The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – came to such a satisfying, self-contained conclusion. Producer Frank Marshall, a veteran (one of the few) of all five films, said it himself in 2012: “Jason Bourne knew what his name was and where he came from and he didn’t really want to be an agent anymore. So that didn’t really leave us a wide source of story material.” That logic led to The Bourne Legacy, which attempted to shift the series to a new protagonist, but mixed reviews and disappointing box office apparently led Universal to back the appropriately weighted trucks of money up to Supremacy and Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass and original trilogy star Matt Damon’s homes, so here we are.
Yet Marshall’s conundrum remains, and aside from a half-hearted attempt to construct a lackluster origin/revenge story, it’s never solved. You won’t walk out of Jason Bourne with any more evidence of the need to revisit this story than you walked in with; Greengrass and Damon come off less like returning storytellers than aging rock stars, back out for an encore of a song they’ve grown tired of singing. They can still hit the notes (in spots, at least), but they sure as hell don’t sing it with much feeling anymore.
Greengrass seems particularly out to lunch; I’ve never been one of those to complain about his reliance on handheld photography and helter-skelter staging (it’s always seemed organic to the drama), but he frequently abandons all sense of geography or clarity, with action beats that are too shaky, too close, and too choppy. The last big stunt of the Las Vegas car/SWAT tank trunk is a key example; it ends with a big-ass flip stunt that should be awe-inspiring, yet he never even lets us see it in a wide shot, inexplicably keeping his cameras inside the vehicles. I saw a bystander’s iPhone video of the stunt back when it was shot; it’s far more impressive than what made it into the movie.
To be fair, some of his set pieces work. The first big action beat plays out in the midst of a unrelated, violent clash between Greek protesters and police, and underscores the director’s skill (dating clear back to Bloody Sunday) for staging big scenes in the midst of chaos, without losing control of them. There are a couple of prototypical Bourne sequences, in which spooks in giant control rooms track our hero into public places, where he ingeniously shakes them; they are, as usual, crisp and tightly executed, though given a big assist by their shortage of dialogue (more on that later).
And it is, admittedly, fun to watch Damon slipping in and out of the shadows, peeking through office windows and making use of his surroundings via casual, instinctive improvisation (though there’s sadly less of that this time around). But he doesn’t get much else to do; he mostly glowers and says as little as possible. Alicia Vikander does well enough as the sympathetic CIA analyst who wants to bring him in, but God knows what’s happening with her accent, and her last scenes don’t make a lick of sense. Julia Stiles, also back from the original trio, gets a couple of good moments and one really bad speech.
Tommy Lee Jones is on hand to check the series’ requisite “respected character actor as CIA heavy” box, one previously filled by the likes of Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Albert Finney, David Straithairn, Edward Norton, and Joan Allen. He’s in fine form; the role allows him plenty of opportunities to play his best emotion (total impatience) and to convincingly bark orders like “Spilt the team, put ‘er in the box.” But as great as he (always) is, the role is frustratingly one-dimensional; put against the nuances and complexities of the aforementioned foes (particularly Allen’s), he looks alarmingly like a simple, cardboard bad guy.
That, and most of Bourne’s other woes, go back to the script, and sadly, Greengrass and Damon have no one to blame but themselves; it’s credited to the director and to first-time screenwriter (and Greengrass’s regular film editor) Christopher Rouse, with some uncredited work by Damon. Conspicuous in his absence is Tony Gilroy, the Oscar-nominated scripter who wrote and directed Legacy and co-wrote the first three films. There’s some controversy about the full extent of his contributions to those films, but whatever the case, this much is clear: the scripts that bore his name were efficient and brainy, and Jason Bourne’s is overwhelmingly stupid, from the clumsy attempts at timeliness (Zuckerberg stand-in, Assange stand-in, Snowden name-check) to the subtext-free dialogue (“We both want to take down the corrupt institutions that control society!”) to the dumbed-down exposition (at one point, Bourne discovers a notebook Nicky left for him, in which all the story points she previously disclosed in dialogue are jotted down in big, simple phrases) to the willy-nilly motivations.
It’s all pretty depressing, because those fiercely intelligent scripts were what made these movies so exceptional – they were what separated them from the pack, to such a degree that when Bourne beats up a guy with a book in Ultimatum, it played less like a gimmick than a meta-textual manifesto. And unfortunately, without that key puzzle piece in place, Jason Bourne is just another dumb summer action movie.
Jason Bourne is out Friday.