Jason Bourne (2016)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon, Riz Ahmed, Vincent Cassell, Tommy Lee Jones, Julia Stiles, Alicia Vikander.
Plot: The most dangerous former operative of the CIA is drawn out of hiding to uncover hidden truths about his past.
The genre defining ‘Bourne’ spy-thriller-action movie franchise is back with a fifth installment and, following their notable absence from its most recent release The Bourne Legacy, so are the actor-director duo of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass (collaborators for The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum).
Returning to the Jason Bourne character, the movie centers on his re-emergence as a threat to the US’s Central Intelligence Agency as he is dragged from his off-grid existence by a former colleague whose new information forces the former spy to continue his pursuit of discovering his lost self, most particularly regarding the motivations behind why he joined the Agency as a part of the special agent program Treadstone.
“He’s a true American patriot” says CIA operative Heather Lee (Vikander) upon her analysis of Bourne’s behaviour and history with the agency; words that become the hook and anchor point of the movie that seeks to return Bourne to a more familiar locality and, more importantly, is used to present Bourne as a more morally conscious and idealistically American protagonist. This move from co-writers Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse – collaborators at a directorial-editorial level across all of Greengrass’s previous movies – who were tackling their first Bourne movie without screenwriter Tony Gilroy (who wrote the screenplay on the previous four movies and was the director of The Bourne Legacy), was a brave but well thought out development of the Bourne character that seemed to coincide with the development of the ideals that the US has had since the second Gulf War and particularly since the more critical and self-ridiculing post-911 landscape that the first Bourne movies were developed within. The introduction of new characters such as social media billionaire extraordinaire Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) in particular offered new and more contemporary avenues regarding corruption and state control for the film to explore, perhaps more so than had been available in previous installments, yet the movie remained as focused on the Bourne character as it always has been and was typically exploratory of issues surrounding the morality of his killing, even going as far as to explore the morality of his leaking of documentation and uncovering the original trilogy’s main antagonists: Treadstone/Operation Blackbriar. It was an altogether neatly packaged take on the Bourne character that succeeded in recreating the best bits about the original trilogy without having to revisit the original trilogy’s replicated and now tiresome formula.
One of the things that made the original Bourne trilogy remarkable and undeniably game changing was the ways in which the protagonist was the driving force of the plot – advancing each scene by his own accord and rarely being the beneficiary of happenstance – and in how each of his interactions were based in reality through the presentation of any two characters holding opposing ideals and therefore creating conflict, and were rarely settled by a simple forgiveness or agreement. Each character’s motives were explained or strongly implied and this is something Greengrass and Rouse managed to replicate with Ahmed’s social media billionaire character, but expanded upon with Alicia Vikander’s Heather Lee, a mid-level cyber-security CIA agent intent on pursuing her own goals even while risking the integrity of the agency’s missions. The character took many a twist and turn through stages of likability courtesy of aligning herself with opposing sides as the story developed, with a viciously selfish personality that was willing to step on people to get to the top, including her boss and the head of the revived and re-branded Treadstone initiative, CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Jones’s character is a typically old fashioned one that truly believed in helping and protecting the American people, rich with ideals of surveillance being the saviour of many if not all lives in the United States, and his knowledge of Bourne’s capabilities made him a unrelenting foe of the protagonist and a conflicting personality to that of Vikander’s character, which made for some excellent interactions.
Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones were excellent in their portrayals and conveyed such a chemistry on screen that their characters’ political talk and actions that guarded themselves from the other’s opposing ideals quickly became one of the stories of the movie and allowed each actor to truly deliver. Vikander was at once vulnerable and incredibly focused, driven and dangerous; it was a fantastic portrayal filled with the sort of quality her reputation has come to indicate. Jones was typically hard nosed, but the almost dead-eyed and murderous look he’s been famous for delivering much of his career was back after too long of an absence; it was probably his best antagonistic performance in years. Of course, both actors were under the tutelage of one of the 21st century’s greatest thriller directors whose more authorial role certainly allowed for more of a focus on what was working on the day of shooting, which can be assumed to be a lot of Vikander and Jones’s scenes. Typically, Greengrass’s talents were complimented by the work of his lead – Matt Damon – who, despite a 9 year absence, was back to his typical Bourne best in a performance that was complimentary of his career-defining work in The Martian this time last year. His leadership of the movie is just as important as it was in Ridley Scott’s 2015 film and he seems at home under the pressure.
Perhaps less fortunately for audiences with regard to Greengrass, Damon and company is the ways in which the action was presented. Much like in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), Greengrass adopts shaky cam techniques to hide brutal shots, blood and so on, to reach a lower and more financially viable PG-13/12A rating. Unfortunately for Jason Bourne, this was not as successful as in the movie’s predecessor and, for the first time in Greengrass’s Bourne universe, seemed to be pulling punches. This was a real shame considering how smartly written and performed the movie was, and how well orchestrated each of the chases and tense scenarios were, and though it didn’t detract from the quality or enjoyment of the movie in a substantial way, it did make the movie feel less brutal and therefore as true of the titular character’s hard-hitting slog of a life as it could have otherwise been. This didn’t help French star Vincent Cassell – who played ‘Asset’ – either, as the actor was restricted to a limited number of tense glares and not much else. Of course, this is not striding too far away from the formula usually presented in the Bourne franchise for ‘assets’, but with such a huge international star in the role it seemed only logical that he’d have more of an impact than the construction of his action scenes allowed for.
The presentation of Cassell and the lack of true Bourne hand-to-hand action we’ve become accustomed to in such impressive ways across the course of the franchise was disappointing, but the cleverly constructed screenplay was played out in a fashion typical of the other movies in the franchise. Jason Bourne can therefore be considered a true member of the Bourne series and a deserving successor to The Bourne Ultimatum. Ultimately, this Bourne entry can be considered an intense and intelligent thriller with the right people leading the film behind the scenes and on the screen, and while it may not garner the traction of some of the action sequels released earlier in the year – Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse – Jason Bourne is certainly a thrill-ride in its own right that has proven that adapting successful formulas can work in franchised Hollywood, and that talented filmmakers can make action movies that are not only entertaining, but also engaging, intelligent and meaningful.