REVIEW: 'Jason Bourne' is a half-hearted sequel fighting for a reason to exist


The ending of The Bourne Ultimatum, the then-final film in the series, was something any fan of the series could be happy with. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) had finally remembered who he was, and even achieved a kind of closure about the missions he’d undertaken as an assassin for the CIA. As Bourne floated in the East River after a dive from a building, we came full circle back to the beginning of the first film, only to see him kick his legs and swim away, apparently to try to reclaim his old life.

Taken together, the three films in the initial Bourne trilogy showed how Bourne systematically fought back against an organization that had used him as a weapon. His actions in the “final” film were supposed to put an end to his involvement in covert operations and government machinations.

Of course, as any movie action hero will tell you, you’re rarely ever “out”. A story can plot out the best exit for a character imaginable, but there will always be moviegoers (and movie producers) clamouring for another installment. The only question is how to justify bringing a character back; for a character like Jason Bourne, you’d better have a damn good reason to pull him out of retirement – otherwise, it just gets harder and harder to care about him. What’s the point of having him fight so hard to get his enemies off his back if he’s only going to jump back into the fray at the slightest provocation?

Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee, a CIA officer in charge of cyber operations.
Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee, a CIA officer in charge of cyber operations.

Sadly, the filmmakers behind the latest film in the series, titled simply Jason Bourne, fumble this most basic requirement of a new Bourne film. The screenplay, co-written by Christopher Rouse and Paul Greengrass (who also returns to direct), digs around in Bourne’s previously-unexplored backstory and fishes out a flimsy detail about Bourne’s father to compel Bourne to re-engage with the CIA. The revelation might make the battle personal, but it never feels substantial enough to force Bourne back into the open. In fact, the premise feels more like it was cut from a longer version of Ultimatum than a catalyst for a separate film.

Even when Bourne does come in from the cold, Greengrass seems to have forgotten what made his earlier films in the series work so well. Jason Bourne plays like a middling remix of a great song: there’s plenty of parts we recognize, but they haven’t been re-combined or added to in a way that makes it worthwhile.

In fact, many scenes resemble offcuts from the earlier Damon-starring movies, assembled out of order. Often, the action is rushed to a conclusion, as if the film has better things to focus on. It’s a pattern that continues through much of the movie, undermining most of the tension.

Another key element of any Bourne film are the “Oh sh*t!” moments. These are sequences that show off how adept Bourne is at outwitting his enemies – the first three movies are full of them, and they serve a key role in helping the audience identify with Bourne and thrill in his table-turning tactics. Some of my favourites include this one from Supremacy and this one from Ultimatum; I was a little crushed that Jason Bourne doesn’t include anything like them. As a result, in the new film, Bourne rarely resembles the unstoppable force he’s meant to be – instead, his prowess looks too much like luck.

One thing Jason Bourne is able to replicate is character types – you get a CIA director (Tommy Lee Jones) who doggedly pursues Bourne, much like Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper) or Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) in the earlier films. You get a female CIA officer (Alicia Vikander) who eventually shows some sympathy for Bourne, like Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) in the second and third films. And don’t forget the casting of a handsome foreign box-office star as the CIA asset chasing Bourne – Clive Owen, Karl Urban and Edgar Ramírez have all had a turn, so now the torch passes to Vincent Cassel for the new film.

Riz Ahmed as Aaron Kalloor and Tommy Lee Jones as CIA Director Robert Dewey.
Riz Ahmed as Aaron Kalloor and Tommy Lee Jones as CIA Director Robert Dewey.

Happily, none of the new faces are out of place. Vikander’s early character development is handled adeptly at first, though the film appears to lose patience in its final act and pushes her character to some nonsensical places. Jason Bourne also works in an unexpected subplot in the form of a social media CEO (Riz Ahmed) who finds himself begrudgingly letting the CIA access the private information of his user base. The concept gets points for referencing the FBI/Apple privacy debate from earlier this year, but it doesn’t really fit in a Bourne film, and it’s the kind of thing that won’t age well if you watch the film again several years from now.

It’s worth it to include a note on the film’s shaky-cam cinematography. While I can tolerate Greengrass’ taste for handheld shooting in the first three Bourne films, I was hoping that a nine-year break from the series would inspire the director to try something new with his visuals.

This is especially true in the wake of films like Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick, which show how thrilling an action scene can be when you can actually see what the characters are doing. Not so with Jason Bourne: Greengrass’ headache-inducing camerawork is back with a vengeance, and with it some of the worst editing in the series so far. All it makes me want to do is rewatch the truly excellent fight in the Paris apartment in The Bourne Identity – a high-water mark for action in the early 2000s, and something many filmmakers have yet to improve on.

So what does Jason Bourne leave us with, after so many fans (myself included) insisted that a Greengrass/Damon partnership would right the wrongs of the Jeremy Renner-starring 2012 spinoff The Bourne Legacy? While I have no hard proof from Greengrass’ and Damon’s schedules, the new film smacks of a rush job – an attempt to squeeze a long-awaited collaboration into the calendars of two talents who have only gotten busier since 2007.

It gives us a Bourne film that didn’t take the time to re-capture what we loved about the first three films, and instead slammed together a few too many re-imaginings of scenes and characters that were better the first time around. Maybe it’s time to take a page from Bourne’s playbook and develop some selective amnesia about this franchise?

Jason Bourne gets two stars out of four.

Two Stars

What did you think of the new film in the super-spy franchise? Is it a worthy follow-up, a disappointment, or just a mediocre entry that might lead to a better sequel? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!