Matt Damon’s fourth outing as the amnesiac rogue assassin Jason Bourne, with Paul Greengrass returning to direct, brings back with frenetic force the gritty slick thrills that made the trilogy so engaging and popular, with a post-Snowden context of surveillance and social media thrown in, to bring it up to date. It is a confident thriller that unapologetically and forcefully imitates its predecessors, anything new or different being merely a cursory gesture to its swift execution of rapidly cut fist-fights, car-chases and tense cyber-stalking. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as classic Bourne is what we all desire, yet perhaps its other half-baked elements, including the weak sub-plot of Aaron Kalloor’s (Riz Ahmed) social media platform ‘Deep Dream,’ needed touching up to fully justify its existence. The root issues driving the hero’s identity crisis seemed to be neatly and superbly resolved by the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, so this new instalment would either need something thematically different and interesting, or provide a new avenue for the plot to explore further hidden depths within Bourne, which it did not do entirely effectively.
We first see Bourne in somewhat isolated decline on the Greek-Macedonian border, living out his existence as a bare-knuckle fighter, still strong and buff, yet dishevelled, and sprouting a few renegade strands of grey hair. It seems as though he has resigned himself to this post-trilogy life, but his haunted gaze and continuing flashbacks suggest otherwise. If at times the franchise feels like it is outstaying its welcome, that is because so is Bourne’s past. Although fundamental parts are now known, little niggling details still remain in shadow, and constantly knock against the present. Bourne is propelled back into the radar of the CIA when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into agency databases to uncover evidence about its illegal assassination programs and Bourne’s recruitment into Treadstone, including the role of his father. Another tense game of cat-and-mouse between Bourne and the CIA ensues, this game being the bread-and-butter of the series. To reignite the franchise, this is a solid workable premise, but Bourne is caught inevitably in the realm of small-print amnesia. The greater mysteries have already passed, and the powerful motivations that moved the trilogy are not as strong here. It is as if the studio has forced him into a psychoanalytic compression chamber, squeezing him for more and more. What results (without giving anything away) is a slightly unbelievable dialogue between Bourne’s natural patriotism and the moral murkiness of the CIA. It is suggested that Bourne might reach a “tipping point” and re-join the agency, but neither we nor Bourne ever truly believe this.
But despite the shaky grounds on which this new instalment stands, the stunning action sequences, laced with Greengrass’ trademark fast impressionistic cuts, melt all doubt into absurdity. This is what we came for. A chase scene through an anti-austerity riot in Athens is possibly the best sequence Greengrass has ever done in terms of technical triumph. Fires rage, Molotov cocktails fly, riot police beat their shields, and Bourne cuts nimbly through it all while being hunted by Dewey’s (CIA director played by Tommy Lee Jones) hired French assassin (named “Asset” and played with extraordinary menace by Vincent Cassel). Greengrass has many plates spinning at once, and to keep them steady requires enormous care and control, yet despite this, the scene feels authentically chaotic, allowing enough free-form randomness to disguise his hand. I have often felt at times, watching the trilogy, that in these kind of chase sequences, crowds move around Bourne like conveniently placed flash-mobs, but that is certainly not the case here. Other scenes are less memorable. One of the car chases is just ridiculous in its collateral destruction and somehow feels anti-Bourne. I always felt that the series succeeded because it always maintained its realism, whether moral or actual, and it is scenes like this that take away from that. Bourne is quieter, more methodical, and maintains the pretence that this could happen, or is happening, in real life.
To try and take the film in new directions, it has been lazily infused with discussions about personal privacy versus public safety in a social media context. Aaron Kalloor is the young Zuckerberg-like CEO of social media empire ‘Deep Dream’, promising his users that “no one will be watching you,” a message that is comprised by his financial entanglements with CIA director Dewey, who plans to use the platform for mass surveillance. The narrative line is interesting, but sloppily done. At the risk of being petty, ‘Deep Dream’ is a crummy name. It sounds like a naïve imitation of what a hip young social media platform would be called. Also, apart from the CEO himself, we never see anything else connected to it. Not a single shot of an app or website, not anything that could give us at least a minor impression of what these moral discussions involved. Ultimately this all lead to the sense that these more up-to-date aspects of the film were hastily manufactured and badly thought-out. Greengrass has created an entertaining barrel-full of Bourne, but it is the little things that distract the film from being the triumphant return it could have been.
Dir: Paul Greengrass
Scr: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse
Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed
Prd: Paul Greengrass, Matt Damon
DOP: Barry Ackroyd
Music: John Powell, David Buckley
Run time: 123 minutes
Jason Bourne is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital now.