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Jason Bourne: Punching Down on a Once Great Franchise

Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon had a dynamic, mysterious hero in Jason Bourne, but returning to him after ten years proves a tiresome exercise.

Universal Pictures

I suppose, technically speaking, the Jason Bourne movies are a franchise, but they’ve never felt that way. Director Paul Greengrass—who has now directed three in the series and whose presence had to be assured before Matt Damon would return to the character again—has always made the Bourne films feel a piece with his other work, politically charged thrillers that grounded kinetic action in our own world. Like Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips and Greengrass’s masterpiece United 93, his Bourne movies aren’t so much about the awesomeness of big, explosive set-pieces as much how chaotic those set-pieces felt when juxtaposed with reality. Bourne himself is a vaguely ridiculous character—he’s an amnesiac for crying out loud—but as a character always feels real because Damon and Greengrass insist on sketching him, and everything else, on a human scale. You believe his chaos because you believe all of our chaos.

The biggest disappointment, among many, for Greengrass’s reboot of the franchise he and Damon had abandoned for a decade, is how divorced Bourne is from his original species. He’s less of a character and more of  a confused pawn in a global political game—he’s basically Jack Bauer. Like the famed torturemonger of 24, Bourne is now a monotonous fighting machine, a robot with no ability to relate to anyone around him. Greengrass and Damon, away from the franchise for so long, have lost touch with the character who made their movies so vital and urgent. Here, he’s a superhero who kicks everybody’s ass and looks miserable doing it. The key to the Bourne movies was that the action scenes felt almost accidental, a byproduct of the shady political machinations of grave white men in suits telling themselves they were doing the right thing. Jason Bourne is a standard action movie with normal villains and formulaic plot structure. Greengrass took a series that felt like it meant something and runs it through the blockbuster Xerox a few times. It’s obligatory in every sense.

In Jason Bourne, Bourne has been on the run for nearly a decade, sulking through a series of sweaty, brawny man-fights while he hides from his past and the U.S. government that betrayed him. His old associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) comes across a detail from his past and finds him, putting him back on the radar of the CIA, particularly director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his brilliant deputy Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). Bourne dutifully races through cosmopolitan cities across the globe, trying (once again) to answer questions from his past while (once again) the feds try to stop him to hide an ugly secret of their own. This time there’s a lot of sloppy technobabble tossed in about privacy in a social network age, and Edward Snowden gets a few shoutouts, but on the whole, Jason Bourne could have been made in the 1980s: A super-soldier battles an organization hell bent on his destruction, working his way up the chain to a climactic fight scene with the big bad guy. Take out the shaky cam and add in a one-liner or two and Rae Dawn Chong, you basically have Commando.

It’s a little shocking, considering how current Greengrass’ Bourne films felt a decade ago, just how saggy and familiar this film plays. Even the shaky cam fight sequences, which revolutionized the genre in the aughts, feel perfunctory and archaic, like a callback to a bygone era. As usual, the cutting and shaking is so oppressive that you can’t tell what’s going on, but it worked in the first films because they were trying to create a canvas of chaos; here, in a much more standard thriller, they just give you a headache. What’s strange is that the same tricks that worked marvelously in Captain Phillips just three years ago seem so tired and out of place here. The reason, I’d argue, is not just that Captain Phillips had a stronger story (though it did, by a wide margin), but also that it had a point to make: That corporate globalization had created desperate circumstances for all of us down in the middle and at the bottom. There is none of this in Jason Bourne, just nods to a few privacy vs. safety concerns. The movie has no reason to exist other than to get the franchise back on track, which, considering the heights this franchise once reached, is an incredibly depressing place to find one’s self.

You can tell that Greengrass and Damon knew they didn’t have much story to work with: There’s a lack of energy or urgency to both the film’s pacing and Damon’s performance that feel paint-by-numbers. Tommy Lee Jones is always a potentially formidable opponent—his laconic Texan no-bullshit self-assuredness is a reasonable representative of a certain kind of governmental paternalism—but the movie hasn’t thought his character through that well. Vikander has a steely resolve and quiet calculation that has potential here, but she’s still mostly powerless in her own narrative; she ends up more a plot convenience than anything else. The biggest problem is mostly Damon: Pumped up physically, he also looks older and more exhausted, as if he lacks the patience for the goings-on around him. The Damon-Greengrass connection gave these films real-world relevance and a sometimes subversive take on the political techno-thriller. But this is a faded facsimile, uninspired Cliff Notes meant to lightly jog your memory rather than revive much fervor. Jason Bourne is a cover performed by the same band that wrote the original but doesn’t like the song anymore. They’ll play it for you. They’ll pretend it’s still like playing it for the first time. But you can see it on their faces: They know better, and so will you.

Grade: C

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on filmFollow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site