What was The Bourne Legacy about? I can’t remember. I know that this was in the midst of the Jeremy Renner Revolution where if you had an aging franchise, you get Jeremy Renner to add some new blood. Between Avengers adventures he was supposed to take over for Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, and he was supposed to fill the shoes of Matt Damon in the Bourne movies. So much for both those ideas. With Jason Bourne, not only does Damon return to the franchise that made him an action star, but along for the ride is director Paul Greengrass, and together they were supposed to get this franchise back on the right track. Oh well.
Almost 10 years ago in his last Bourne movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon and Greengrass made some massive bank, but it was more than a little clear that it was a slapdash effort that hoped frantic action could fill plotholes and assumptions. It worked for the most part, but putting nine years between Bourne adventures could only help, right? It was a chance to reorient things, rethink the character, and find a compelling way to bring him into a rapidly changing world that could, frankly, use someone that can punch out a guy with one swing. Instead, the film dumbs down Bourne by making him chase the oldest of dramatic motivations: revenge.
Yup, Bourne gets dragged back onto the grid because old pal Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) learns that Bourne’s dad (Gregg Henry) was not only the inventor of Treadstone, but he might have been killed for it thanks to the machinations of current CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Parsons, with the help of an Anonymous-like group, hack Central Intelligence to get insight into their “black” programs, which leads to new revelations about Bourne, who seems to have spent the last decade hitting every Fight Club in Europe, literally and figuratively. Why a man with his particular set of skills would aim so low while wasting his life away, is never explained.
The first two Bourne movies are all about how the man himself was a patriot turned pawn, manipulated by corrupt and cynical men in a system blind to the fact it was betraying the very ideas it was supposedly protecting. Ironically, Bourne had to lose his memory to discover who he really was and what his place is in the world, and that forces him to struggle and come to peace with it. That’s called subtext, and this Bourne has none of that. The bad guys are bad because they’re bad, and Bourne himself is either stupid or smart depending on what the moment calls for. There’s a scene early on that’s almost an exact parallel of an earlier Bourne film, all the signs are there, but the world’s best spy still doesn’t smell the trap.
This confused motivation extends to the character played by Alicia Vikander, who has some past with Dewey that’s never explained, and is either Bourne’s secret ally or his main antagonist depending on the situation. This is the first time I can recall that Vikander has disappointed because the idea of “professional” she’s presenting is to act robotic and constantly scowl. Not that the Bourne movies are known for their outlandish characterization, but there’s at least one typical Tommy Lee moment when Dewey exclaims. “Let’s give it a shot!” when presented with a new plan to catch Bourne. Vikander had such presence in last summer’s spy franchise, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it’s too bad she couldn’t have a little more personality.
Generally speaking, personality is an extravagance that Jason Bourne can’t afford because it might get in the way or a bare bones plot that exists solely for Bourne to travel around the world (Europe and the U.S. mainly) beating up bad guys whose sole motivation in getting Bourne is to get Bourne. Meanwhile, a nameless assassin known only as “the Asset” (“the Asset” is always getting “activated” in these movies) played by Vincent Cassel chases Bourne also for revenge because Bourne’s exposure of Treadstone lead to “the Asset” being caught and tortured. Now that’s interesting, one of Bourne’s fellow spies burned because of Bourne’s actions. It’s just too bad that Cassel is allowed to have only slightly more humanity than Vikander.
The action, which, let’s be honest, is the big reason we come to these things, is perfectly well executed. Greengrass manages to stifle his instincts for “over-directing” the fights and the chases; without all the quick cuts and overly-exaggerated steady cam you can actually get a sense of pacing and place as Bourne takes on all enemies. The director restrains himself right up till the end with the final fight, which is supposed to be the most consequential, but instead feels like one of those movie rides in a theme park where you’re being thrown around in your seat with the action on screen matching all the bumps and jolts. Other than that, those susceptible might have been able to leave their motion sickness meds at home.
I also give credit to Damon for at least suggesting that there’s more going on with Bourne beneath the surface. Here, he’s getting older, and all he knows to do is fight, and those two things can’t really live together for too munch longer. In Jason Bourne, there’s an interesting idea about the CIA bringing Bourne back into the fold, using his knowledge and experience from years of living off the grid to battle America’s enemies who also know how to live in the shadows. Like Independence Day: Resurgence, the real sequel you want to see is buried in all the leg work to re-introduce us to a film universe we’re already pretty familiar with. The point of these sequels is their familiarity, and if you can’t trust the audience to be familiar with them by the time the movie opens, then why make these films to begin with?
Frankly, Jason Bourne is a perfectly serviceable Bourne movie, and that’s fine, except that the style it ushered in has been copied by action films across the spectrum, from the mavericks like Hardcore Henry to traditional fare like the Bond series. So it’s not really enough for Bourne to be merely serviceable anymore, not when the return of Damon and Greengrass to the fold was welcomed with such fanfare. In much the same way as Bourne Legacy, there’s a presumption that if you put the “Bourne” name on it, the people will come. Perhaps that will be the case here, but the Bourne franchise used to mean going against the typical spy-movie mold, but now it is the mold and Jason Bourne does nothing to try and break it.