Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot, including the final act.
“We’re still trying to come up with a narrative to explain what happened” says a CIA spook to Alicia Vikander’s Langley careerist in the closing minutes of Jason Bourne. It’s a little late in the movie to be thinking about that but it’s an accurate diagnosis of the film’s problems. Following the tangential Bourne Legacy, starring placeholder action star Jeremy Renner, the old team of Matt Damon and handheld fetishist Paul Greengrass have reunited to sequelise a trilogy that concluded the titular spy’s story, lock stock and barrel of a sniper’s rifle. What to do when there’s no tale left to tell? In Hollywood you retcon – hard. The Bourne Left Overs, as it might have been called, introduces more biographical detail for Jason to uncover, more information about the Black Ops project that created him and may yet create more like him, making this a kind of self-hate movie, and folds in Vincent Cassel as a vengeful assassin tied to Bourne’s shady past. It’s all highly suspect, like Jurassic Park’s convenient Site B, but Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse, who doubles as the editor who gives you those headaches and vision problems, are only getting started.
The latest Bourne falls back on the tried and tested formula of pensive, fast walking, whirlwind hand-to-hand combat, and whip-edited car chases that the brain’s still decoding an hour after the end credits. That stuff’s locked before a word’s written, so Greengrass and Rouse have the unenviable task, after three and a half movies, of grafting a plot onto those familiar checkpoints. Without the central mystery of Bourne’s identity to fall back on, or even his ultimatum, they’re forced to work up a story about the CIA’s top man, Tommy Lee Jones, colluding with a Mark Zuckerberg-like social media giant to spy on us all – a neat bit of pandering to a generation that already think this is happening – while devising a personal connection for Bourne (and incentive to intervene), namely Jones’ role in his selection and recruitment for Treadstone – the programme that turned him into the mass murderer we know and love.
All of which is fine, except none of it feels anything less than contrived. Jason Bourne is a movie powered by a clockwork universe – where characters exist to facilitate setpieces and make decisions that logic says they should not, in order to keep the plot moving.
We have to take it on trust that Julia Stiles could find the “off the grid” agent – perhaps she alone knew where he was hiding, though he looks surprised to see her – else he’d have no reason to break cover and seek out his persecutors. Likewise, you have to just accept that Stiles would wait ten years to look into this new information. We never learn what spurred her on to do so after all this time, but the further you work backwards, the harder it gets to make the story work.
Would Tommy Lee Jones and tech CEO Riz Ahmed agree to have dinner together in public, or appear on stage together in Las Vegas, if they were trying to keep their association secret? Jones plans to have Ahmed assassinated (with him wounded), in an attempt to avert him exposing the CIA’s snooping plot, but isn’t being there when it happens a bit of giveaway, or indeed, letting Ahmed go on stage first, start to blab, then ordering he be shot before he can tell a disbelieving audience who his collaborator is? It’s ridiculous, but if Jones and Bourne’s would-be assassin, Cassel, weren’t in the same room, in setpiece friendly Las Vegas, then Jason Bourne would be denied his revenge and the movie its climatic showdown.
Maybe none of this matters, after all it’s not a documentary, Greengrass’s style notwithstanding, but what takes the edge off Jason Bourne is a sense of familiarity; the franchise going through the motions, beat for beat. No one, alas, has anything new to contribute – it’s variations on a theme – the exasperated CIA control room, the try hard assassins, their slippery quarry. You’ve seen the action and the locations before, except then you felt there was something to discover, a mystery to solve. Those days are gone and the agent everyone fears is looking a little jowly. Another movie’s suggested, centred on the potentially action friendly but psychologically one-note idea of either “bringing in” Jason or killing him, but on this evidence the chase is over.