Jason Bourne (2016) by Paul Greengrass
Review by Zach Dennis
The beginning of Jason Bourne features the titled hero (played by Matt Damon) appearing in a Fight Club-esque camp where he is pitted against a much larger and younger opponent. He removes his shirt and the camera pans by the lines of white in Bourne’s hair (with a little movie magic they attempt to remove those throughout the film, but we know they’re there) in order to show the grizzled character of The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum in his current state.
It doesn’t seem by accident that director Paul Greengrass (who helmed the last two entries with Damon) would make a quick pass by the aged hair to show a more mature Bourne than we saw before. Looking back at The Bourne Identity in 2002, Damon looks like a child compared to the more distinguished actor we know today.
This is a character that we have grown with to an extent, but that doesn’t seem like a through line that Jason Bourne wants to follow. Instead, the latest entry in this massively popular franchise decides to follow the beats that we’re accustomed to with a “Jason Bourne story,” but attempt to relate it to a changing world influenced by Edward Snowden and the acclimation of traceable technology being put in everyone’s hands. Jason Bourne has a good mind, but it also feels like a half-hearted effort by Greengrass, Damon, and crew in telling a story that doesn’t seem to have the soul or immediacy of its predecessors.
After Bourne is knocking out random men with one punch, he is picked up by his old friend, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has hacked into a CIA server and pulled both files of the Treadstone program — the one Bourne spent the previous three films tearing down — and the origins of a similar program the agency is starting up. This attracts the attention of CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who tasks up-and-comer Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) with tracking down Parsons and Bourne.
The plot follows similar beats of the previous entries with an assassin (played by Vincent Cassel) also tracking Bourne for his own personal reasons. The time to revisit the Bourne franchise seems ripe with the emergence of Snowden and WikiLeaks since the last chapter of the first trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum. One of the trademarks of the series was how integrated it felt with the technological climate of the time and how it was able to suspend itself in a very utopian reality while still allowing the actual events of the world — something like 9/11 — to influence how the stories were managed.
In this case, a lot of the film feels bred from the modern world post-Snowden and Julian Assange with one CIA operative even making a reference to the former following the hack by Nicky Parsons. Updated technology and an eye on social media are added to the usual Bourne tendencies to evade cameras and stealth agents following him in crowds.
Damon and Greengrass have spoken at length in interviews about how the time was right for a return to the franchise — and in some respects it is — but that also begs the question why this film felt so desperately connected to the past. It seems illogical to continue to dig into the past of Jason Bourne — a plot that felt complete at the end of the last movie — when there was space to place a now fully understanding version of the character into a world that could use his expertise.
Instead, Jason Bourne just feels like a half-baked version of the other movies and an excuse to further cement Matt Damon as a box office commodity (even though the massive success of The Martian last year showed both that he is that and someone to reckon with during awards season).
It was frustrating to see this team — who, for good or bad, revolutionized the modern action blockbuster — giving us such a lackluster story in a time that is ripe with real examination into the world of technology and its underground roots. In a world post Blackhat and Mr. Robot, Jason Bourne feels like the average person’s understanding of modern technology with none of the eye-opening moments that the franchise has been known to illuminate on.
Jason Bourne is a franchise that seemed to find its satisfying conclusion, but was risen from the grave to meet monetary desires. As a fan of the franchise, it came with mixed feelings seeing this character brought on the screen again, but with the amenities around it, there seemed to be hope that it would offer a nuanced take on the state of society and technology that its predecessors gave.
That wasn’t the case and this entry attempted to evoke the charm of those other entries without understanding why those worked so effectively both in terms of story and aesthetic.