Jason Bourne (2016)

2016 #185
Paul Greengrass | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & China / English & German | 12 / PG-13

Jason BourneMuch like the Bond films to which they’re so often compared, the Bourne movies have their devotees while only fitfully pleasing the critical establishment. This fifth movie — which is notable for marking the return of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass after the semi-reboot of The Bourne Legacy — certainly met with mixed reviews when it came out at the end of this summer. Mixed erring towards negative, anyhow, though it does have its supporters. I’d love to say I’m among them, but my take was more… well, mixed.

The story picks up a decade-ish since the last Damon movie, Ultimatum (I don’t recall if the time gap is specified on screen, but we’re led to believe it’s been roughly real-time). Bourne is still living off the grid, participating in underground bare-knuckle fights in Greece for money and/or something to do. When his former associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the CIA to retrieve documents on the black ops missions she and Bourne used to be a part of, she discovers something about Bourne’s past that leads her to meet up with him. In Langley, hotshot young tech-head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and her boss Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) are on to Nicky and presume Bourne is involved in her plot, dispatching The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to rub them out — but he has his own history with Bourne.

Bourne againAction sequences ensue, shot with all the ShakyCam you’d expect from Greengrass. By now I imagine you have your own view on whether his style works or not. Personally, I think it’s considerably less bamboozling than when it made its debut in Supremacy 12 years ago — it’s been so copied that we’re more used to seeing it. I think Greengrass has a better handle on the purpose of the style than many of his imitators, however. I’d also argue that the cinematography in Jason Bourne is a smidgen more stable, with shots held a few frames longer, so that it’s even less seasickness-inducing than before. In fact, some shots — even in the quick-cut action montages — are downright pretty. The film was shot by Barry Ackroyd, who hasn’t lensed a Bourne before but has done most of Greengrass’ other movies, so maybe that has something to do with it.

It’s in the big set pieces that Jason Bourne functions best. One in London in the middle of the film is just people walking around a lot looking over their shoulders, but Greengrass still invests it with some tension. Better is the climax, a kind of drag race down the Las Vegas strip… in the middle of traffic, of course. It’s largely implausible (I’ve been to Vegas — I remember the strip as being permanently gridlocked), but it’s certainly adrenaline-pumping. However, the highlight is probably the first: a chase through a smoky nighttime riot in Athens, with Bourne and Nicky on foot and then a motorbike as they’re pursued by the local police, an undercover CIA team, and the Asset, the latter two directed by Lee, Dewey, and their Langley lot via satellite imagery, CCTV, and… social media.

Government surveillanceFrankly, Jason Bourne is at pains to mix in hyper-current iconography; the reasoning for Damon and Greengrass’ return now being that the world has changed and how does Bourne fit into that? So as well as social media and Greek riots we’ve got references to and riffs on hacking, Edward Snowden, government surveillance of its own citizens, the prevalence of Facebook/Twitter-esque tech companies, and so on. Sadly, I’m not sure the film’s actually got anything to say about any of these things. Greengrass and his co-writer, editor Christopher Rouse, have appropriated all these zeitgeisty concepts to make the film feel very Now, but that surface sheen is more or less where it ends. I mean, there’s a whole subplot starring Riz Ahmed as the Zuckerberg-like CEO of a social media company that I didn’t even mention in my plot summary because it’s kind of an aside. It’s kind of ironic, really, that it always seemed as if Greengrass’ more natural stomping ground was his documentary-ish real-world-exposé type movies, with his contributions to the Bourne series an unusual sideline; yet when he finally marries the two halves of his filmmaking career, it’s the action rather than current-affairs commentary that takes precedence.

Even leaving that aside, the plot is no great shakes. It’s too slight, serving primarily to string together the three or four big set pieces; and it’s too simplistic — Greengrass’ Bourne movies used to be entertainingly baffling, a web of crosses and double-crosses and historical connections and hidden plans. Jason Bourne re-appropriates many of the series’ familiar beats — all of them, in fact — but it feels like Greengrass and Rouse just analysed the previous movies for repeated elements and copied them, rather than having anything fresh to do with the constituent parts. So while few of these building blocks are poorly handled, there’s little remarkable about them either. Some are at least elevated by quality performances: Vikander tries to inject complexity into her character, with some success thanks to final-act kinda-twists, while Tommy Lee Jones brings natural class.

Bourne bikerThe end result is that Jason Bourne does thrill as an action movie, which seems to have been the primary goal of its makers, at the end of the day. As an action-thriller, however, the rinsed-and-repeated plot is a slightly faded imitation of former successes; a through-the-motions way to provide those impressively staged chases and punch-ups. It’s not the definitive Bourne movie one might’ve expected from the returning star/director combo (why else come back if not to perfect, or at least add to, the formula?), but instead means the film ends on an odd note: even though it wasn’t a wholly satisfying experience, and even though it doesn’t end with questions still blatantly hanging (as every Bourne movie bar Ultimatum has done), I want Damon and Greengrass to come back and do it all again, please. Only do it properly next time, yeah guys?

3 out of 5

Jason Bourne is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today and the US next week.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

2013 #55
Tony Gilroy | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Bourne LegacyAs Jason Bourne flits around London and New York making trouble for what’s left of Treadstone, a group of shady men go about safeguarding their own secretive activities. When Bourne exposes Treadstone, a series of convoluted join-the-dots links means it could bring them down too, so they set about destroying their risky initiatives, including killing a bunch of medically-enhanced operatives. What they didn’t count on was one surviving…

That basic setup covers roughly the first 30-40 minutes of The Bourne Legacy. Normally I’d hate to describe so much of a film, but it’s not my fault that co-writer, director and Bourne series veteran Tony Gilroy takes that long to get his story up and running. And it’s another 20 minutes before the real meat-and-potatoes of the tale begins.

And it feels it, too. About 52 minutes in I paused it and went to the kitchen. Not for any particular reason; I just needed a break. There, I saw a slug crawling into my dog’s water bowl, drinking the water or something, I don’t know. I’d never seen that before. I ended up watching that slug slowly edge around the bowl for 15 minutes or more rather than go back to the film. It’s that engrossing.

Gilroy has written or co-written every Bourne film to date, so you’d think he knows his way around the franchise — and he does, but perhaps too well. Each Bourne sequel has basically relied on the same formula: “the conspiracy was bigger than you thought, and now the next level up want Bourne dead”. That was fine in Supremacy — indeed, it took characters left dangling from Identity and wrapped up their roles. Cross by name, cross by natureFor my money, Ultimatum felt like it re-hashed this storyline, bringing in new characters to force a new level of backstory and hierarchy. (Clearly most viewers didn’t mind, as it’s widely regarded as the best Bourne film.)

And Legacy recycles this idea for a third time. Now, Treadstone and Blackbriar are just two of many such programmes run by the CIA and/or some shadowy higher organisation I’m not sure is real. On the bright side, they’re not after Bourne, but new escapee Aaron Cross. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference.

If such a repetitious story wasn’t bad enough, Gilroy spends a ludicrous amount of time setting it up. The beginning of Legacy overlaps with the end of Ultimatum, showing us in dully intricate detail what the numerous new CIA characters were doing during that time. And intercut with that we have our new hero wandering by himself across Alaska. For half an hour. This isn’t an art film meditation on isolation, it’s an action thriller — get a bloody move on!

What did Gilroy lose between Ultimatum and this? Well, co-creators. He co-wrote Identity and Ultimatum, and had two different directors across the first three films. Here he’s responsible for the story, co-writing (with his younger brother), and directing. He undoubtedly has some degree of talent, but maybe the other voices were essential to honing it. The other thing a fresh perspective could bring is fresh ideas. If Gilroy has rehashed the same basic plot three times now, surely they need someone with a new story to offer?

Ah, Rachel WeiszPerhaps also, after four films, he’s too close. Clearly that has advantages for remembering the intricacies of the timeline and continuity, especially with the trilogy’s increasingly complex web of conspiracies and conspirators; but maybe Gilroy has become too deeply embroiled in that. After all, he thinks it’s OK to spend the first half hour of the film connecting up the dots between the previous story and his new plot — who really wants that? That’s for geeky fans to do later.

And yet, for all that, the timeline doesn’t quite make sense. If we assume Identity is set in 2002, because that’s when it was released, then Supremacy is two years later, in 2004. Ultimatum is six weeks after that, so late 2004 or early 2005, and Legacy is immediately after that (as I said, the start overlaps). So, it’s set seven years ago? But a character finds a moderately key plot point on YouTube as if it’s the most natural thing in the world… but the very first YouTube video wasn’t uploaded until April 2005. I guess the films operate on a sliding timeline now, much like long-running superhero comics or the Bond films. That or The Bourne Identity is really a sci-fi film set in the Future Year of 2009. Considering the ‘science’ brought to bear in Legacy, perhaps that is the idea.

This is also the first Bourne film that leaves its storyline truly open. The other sequels had threads to pick up on, obviously, but if the series had stopped after either Identity or Supremacy, you’d have still had a complete tale (or Ultimatum, of course). It’s ironic, because this is also the first time I’ve been left with no desire to see a follow-up. The ending reminded me a bit of Saw IV, actually. For those who don’t know their Saw films, that takes place concurrently to Saw III, following different characters and a different storyline. Requisite Bourne movie car chase, with a bikeAt the end, the two films come together, adding a few seconds more story to what we saw at the end of IV, and ready to move on with unified purpose (well, sort of) in Saw V. Legacy feels like it concludes the same way: we’ve been introduced to new bad guys and a new hero, and the events that ended Ultimatum have been given a few seconds more development with a new twist; so now all is ready to rejoin where we left Bourne himself and continue afresh. Except Matt Damon seems to have ruled out that idea already. And, like I said, do we really want more of these characters and their increasingly ludicrous levels of conspiracy?

Legacy isn’t all bad. When it finally moves up to second gear (after a whole hour) there’s the occasional good action sequence. The requisite Bourne car chase is replaced by a bike chase, but I’d happily argue it’s at least the equal of any of the series’ other road chases — the only part of the film that can stand up to its predecessors, because the other fights and foot chases don’t have the same edge. Indeed, a rooftop/alleyway chase in Manila is just a rehash of Ultimatum’s Tangier sequence, but not as exciting. And through all that, the story remains resolutely uninvolving.

And don’t get me started on the cast. Jeremy Renner is fine as an action man but doesn’t deliver any other significant likeable qualities here (and I don’t think that’s his fault). Rachel Weisz is normally brilliant, but here is reduced to a snivelling plot piece. They’ve made her character a Clever Scientist, which is presumably supposed to make her a Strong Female Character too, but that’s not how it’s played at all. Edward Norton Starring Edward Norton staringis wasted staring at monitors; Albert Finney is literally wasted, his one meaningful moment relegated to the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes section; Zeljko Ivanek gets a pivotal character but is underdeveloped and so his talents are wasted; and some actors from previous Bourne movies appear to be credited merely for use of their photos, until they turn up for ten-second cameos near the end that you’d rather weren’t there because it means someone is planning on a Bourne 5.

After the muted reception Legacy got on release I was expecting it to be mediocre — or perhaps, if I was lucky, underrated — but I thought it was mostly just boring, worse than I’d heard, and not even close to any of the previous Bourne films. They’re exceptional examples of the action-thriller, of course, but this isn’t even good as a routine genre entry, because it’s quite spectacularly dull. I do believe they could have continued this series without the character of Jason Bourne — there’s potential in some of the ideas here. But this version just doesn’t work, as a compelling film or worthy successor.

2 out of 5

The Bourne Legacy is on Sky Movies Premiere at 4pm and 8pm every day for the next week.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2013, which can be read in full here.