Midway through the climactic fistfight of Jason Bourne, excited grunts and clipped shouts — through teeth gritted seemingly from adrenaline — echoed throughout the advance screening auditorium.
A heretofore unheard surround-sound channel announcing itself? Had I missed a character stumbling into a Las Vegas tunnel to cheer on this brawl between two men? Eventually, it dawned on me, and everyone else in the theater, that this person was toward the front row. A fist thrust skyward — and an exhalation as loud as their exhortations for Jason Bourne to “GITTIM! GITTIM! GITTIM!” — did the trick.
There was much postgame debate among the critics’ contingent whether this person was bored and seeking any sort of entertainment. Or if perhaps a spy killed one of their loved ones and this felt like catharsis. I contend this person felt 100% jacked about what they found to be invigorating combat.
I’m often reluctant to reference rowdy outbursts in a review, but feel compelled to do so here if only to report that at least someone was enthusiastic about anything transpiring in Jason Bourne.
Matt Damon, co-writer / director Paul Greengrass or editor / co-writer Christopher Rouse (who won an Oscar for editing 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum) certainly aren’t, even if their work on Ultimatum and 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy surpassed the original’s indifferent coolness to both mightily entertain and leave deep psychological imprints. Both films hold up as among two of the Zeroes’ finest.
Jason Bourne is like watching three NBA All-Stars, whom you know haven’t lost a step, return to the court … and then perform nothing but a three-man weave drill for a couple hours. Worse yet, it’s the poorest cinematic outing with the word “Bourne” in its title; yes, worse even than 2012’s The Bourne Legacy — the Jeremy Renner-starring spinoff which I remain convinced drew audiences only because they wondered whether Damon would unexpectedly show up. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.)
Legacy was guilty only of spending unnecessary time on a new, boring character who, thanks to middling box office, we’ll likely never see again. Jason Bourne actively, and infuriatingly, works to undo everything about the title character that made him far more than an amnesiac, ass-beating cipher.
Supremacy and Ultimatum are stories of a man desperate to uncover his past but who must also accept the consequences of doing so – namely owning up to the willful choice he made to foment global disruption, danger and death, often for duplicitous interests. Sloppy retconning here lets Bourne off the hook for … well, anything he’s done, chalking it up to a manipulation he conveniently just now recalls.
Plus, Greengrass and Damon have long said they didn’t want to return for a third Bourne (fourth overall, not counting Legacy) unless they had something of topical relevance and powerful substance to say. Gone are the jittery, sharply written anxieties of their earlier collaborations’ political eras for a bunch of blended-together buzzwords like “Snowden,” “privacy” and “Silicon Valley.” (I’ll even throw in the oft-derided Green Zone, which is exponentially more ambitious and angry than this.) It doesn’t suggest someone else will mimic Rouse’s atypical editor-to-screenwriter trajectory anytime soon.
The action is also as thin as the story, with little to latch onto besides an escape from an explosive street protest in Greece and a climactic car chase down the Las Vegas Strip (in which a SWAT truck scoops up economy-sized cars like a train’s cowcatcher). But even those scenes, though technically proficient, feel like a reunited band hitting the notes but missing the music.
Appropriately, Jason Bourne opens with his greatest-hits medley – a literal montage of his murder and mayhem. When we last left him, Bourne remembered his real name is David Webb, and he had exposed not only Treadstone — the CIA black-operations division of which he was the golden boy — but its bad little brother, Blackbriar. Presumed dead in the East River, Bourne instead swam away to, presumably, a life off the grid, where we catch up with him presumably over a decade later (given that Supremacy and Ultimatum took place within weeks of each other).
Damon’s physical appearance is harder, blearier, beefier and brusquer, a fine contrast to his boyishness from the original trilogy (especially the first film). In a close-up of Bourne’s face beside the tire of a bike he’s ditched, there’s no question which one has more miles and lower tread. Outside of looking the part, however, Damon’s attempt to resurrect Bourne’s rage is an emotional non-starter.
These days, Bourne is upsetting bettors in bare-knuckle brawls on the Greece-Albania border with one-punch drops. “I’m trying to find a different way,” he says about the path he’s trying to walk. You’ve seen that path before in plenty of movies before; I believe that template’s file is slugged “John Rambo.”
Maybe have him volunteering in an impoverished village or something humanitarian. Anything that would jumpstart the lone intriguing aspect of this go-round — that, if pushed to a specific tipping point he’ll come back in. That’s an interesting notion of nature versus nurture in spycraft: Could a man who so outwardly wants to be done with it actually wish to be nestled more tightly after so much pain on his own? Despite inconsequential third-act flirtations with such complexity, the film fumbles that, too.
Bourne is inadvertently thrown back onto the grid when longtime analyst ally / one-time lover / former CIA wunderkind Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, astonishingly awful) hacks the CIA. She has done so ostensibly on behalf of Edward Snowden stand-in Christian Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer) but makes time to find out even more on Bourne’s past … and how he wound up on Treadstone’s doorstep.
Nicky finds those details, and more – namely files pertaining to Ironhand, the latest CIA black-ops program taken from someone’s workbook of medieval nicknames. (Where does she find all of this information? In a folder labeled “Black Operations,” of course, in one of the film’s many tech howlers.) Once she reaches out to Bourne through backchannels, the CIA once again gives chase.
A pair of Oscar winners delivering terrible performances play their pursuers — a (hopeful) hiccup for one, an unfortunate habit for the other — and you will absolutely miss Joan Allen, David Strathairn and even Legacy’s Edward Norton.
Tommy Lee Jones is CIA Director Robert Dewey, beset by congressional inquiries while building a shady backroom deal to gain data on millions of Americans via a tech CEO (Riz Ahmed, HBO’s The Night Of) whose startup he backed years ago. The bags under Jones’ eyes are so big you could fold them into hospital corners, and his bare-minimum exertion is as sleepy here as it has been largely for the last five years.
Meanwhile, Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) is Heather Lee, the CIA’s director of cyber operations eager to flex her digitally inclined millennial muscle. A spat-out soup of Irish, Serbian and southern, Vikander’s accent is hilariously herky-jerky and she speaks as if she’s clenching her voice box to drown out her natural Swedish dialect. Imagine Sandra Bernhard with a piece of steak stuck in her throat.
Also on the hunt is a CIA asset (Vincent Cassel) with an apparent personal score to settle, which sets up a sort of badass Ocean’s Twelve / Ocean’s Thirteen reunion as the two of them hurtle toward each other.
A few good notions flicker through — like the notion that protesters are equally adept at improvising weapons against governments — but they burn off faster than kerosene-soaked rag in Molotov cocktails. Plus, the dialogue has gone from pointedly political barbs like “It ends when we’ve won” to dunderheaded bromides like “It all ends tonight.”
The only upside of a closing sequence that threatens more sequels is that should Damon return for more, it could be on a note utterly unrelated to new memories from his past. However, outside of the person I’ll come to fondly remember as “GITTIM Guy,” it’s hard to imagine Jason Bourne generating much more excitement than Legacy. Its biggest impression is that it evens the score for Renner and Damon, each of whom has now made a terrible movie in this franchise.