Movie Review: Jason Bourne
By Ben Gruchow
August 9, 2016

I think people would rather see him on Mars.

“He was always gonna come after me,” says CIA director Bob Dewey, speaking in regard to the super spy Jason Bourne. One wonders how many CIA directors in this franchise have uttered something similar, shortly before meeting their end in some form. I’m watching Bourne (Matt Damon, returning for the first time since 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum) mow through trained operatives in order to get at the Director and I’m thinking, life and medical insurance policies for these guys must be through the roof. This is why group coverage is so important in the workplace; everything gets to even out a little.

This is the fifth film in the Jason Bourne series; the first three films all centered around a conveniently-amnesiac rogue CIA operative as he attempted to find out who he was, and - one assumes - who’s responsible for his loss of memory and place in the world. The fourth one subbed in Jeremy Renner for Matt Damon, met with lukewarm reception, and remains unseen by me. This one aims to right the ship and bring us back to the identity storyline. To do this, it brings back Paul Greengrass (director of Bournes Two and Three) and Damon, as well as a couple other faces and names from before.

The first film in the series, from 2002 and directed by Doug Liman, was shrewd and sort of novel in its approach to the spy genre. Now, of course, we’re at the point where the gritty and realistic action thriller/reimagining has been in vogue, out of vogue, rebooted, and made an erstwhile punchline…even within the current iteration of Bourne’s most obvious cinematic progenitor, the Bond series. The newer series has survived on its own terms, but to margins that have slimmed as it’s gone on. Part of it may be the fact that each film has essentially redressed the same story in different clothes; in one film, the secretive head is Joan Allen, in another it’s David Strathairn, and in this one it’s Tommy Lee Jones. But then, Bond has pretty much done the same thing: every film brings about a new form of Bond Girl and every film adheres to a basic spy-thriller template.

The Bourne films are, of course, utterly sincere about what they are. They’re as overstuffed with slick pseudo-plausible developments and stern officials barking orders at computer screens as any other techno-thriller, but the Bourne characters are straitlaced, and don’t seem to be aware of how goofy the whole covert black-ops/identity scenario really is. The saving graces have been partially down to the commitment brought to it by the characters and the occasional really powerful visual or poignant moment (most of which occurred in 2004’s Bourne Supremacy) and very much down to Greengrass’ expertise in stringing together a seemingly incoherent visual and visceral ethic in a startlingly coherent way.

This visual expertise is brought again to Jason Bourne, and there is a fantastic motorcycle-automobile-foot chase sequence in the first half-hour, but the story has by this point run its course. What we have is a winded and frequently aimless narrative that tries to tie a standalone story about national surveillance and consumer technology into the ongoing narrative about Bourne’s sense of self. Neither one really “works”; the stuff with Bourne has been explored and re-explored and goes nowhere particularly revelatory outside of setting up and resolving a point about the character’s father, while the stuff about the CIA and surveillance and backdoors into operating systems never makes it further than thinly drawn, on-the-nose plot drivers.

There’s a certain type of thriller that’s predicated on our assumption as an audience that the character roles will ultimately normalize into whatever our expectations of them are. In plain English, it’s called predictable characterization; in plainer form, it’s called a cliché. So when we see Jones make his first appearance, and we hear him address with some gravity Bourne’s earlier transgressions - which in the light of this film essentially translate to being a one-man Wikileaks - under the implication that what our protagonist has committed is a sort of treason, an act of political subterfuge that has blown covers and cost American lives, the movie immediately presents itself with a fork in the road. It must either take the road that identifies Bourne as some degree of terrorist or misguided insurgent, or it must take the road that what Jones is saying is a lie, meant to deceive the listener (in this case, the head of a highly successful software company named Deep Dream, modeled in all-too-familiar ways on the two major smartphone OS platforms; the design and ethic says Google, and the situation they’re in points to Apple), and conceal the CIA’s own ethically-dubious goals.

Rather than have you guess which road this film takes, I will merely point out that there is yet another new black-ops initiative in Jason Bourne. If you’ll remember, the first three movies had Treadstone and then Blackbriar. Now we have Iron Hand. Its purpose is explained to us by a briefly-surfacing Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles): the ultimate in covert surveillance and data aggregation, done in concert with the latest release of the new Deep Dream OS. I would not dream of telling you more about what Iron Hand does, mostly because the film does not bother to flesh it out much further. It believes that the notion of private citizens being monitored in encyclopedic fashion via social networking and OS backdoors is effective enough on its own.

And so it is, I guess, at least in the whackadoodle universe that this movie occupies, where a blurry digital telephoto crowd picture can be enhanced within seconds to resemble a professionally framed and focused glamour shot, and where thumb drives come emblazoned with positively gigantic labels reading “ENCRYPTED,” so we know that they’ll be really hard to break into. Perhaps my favorite moment is when the new CIA cyber-ops head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) gains knowledge that an unidentified person has gained access to top-secret CIA files; she runs into her office and takes her computer off screen saver, dashes off a few quick terms into a search engine, and within seconds has facial-recognition software positively identify the culprit. In the world of this film, secret government surveillance programs are all-encompassing and pinpoint-precise and never, ever suffer a loss of Internet connection or a false positive or a difficult judgment call. The individuals charged with operating this system come in helpful dimensions of two. The reaction to this film by actual CIA operatives, I suspect, will be uproarious.

We still have the manner of its making by Greengrass and series editor Christopher Rouse; especially in its action sequences, the movie is uncommonly skilled at flowing naturally between jarring handheld shots. To look at the most chaotic moments of this film and the ones before it head-on, and attempt to make sense of it directly, is madness. It takes some practice, but when you sort of downshift your immediate attentiveness and let the scene reside in the corners of your eyes rather than the center, you begin to feel an undeniable logic and rhythm piecing each shot and movement together. The movie is good at aping the impression of what it must be like to be in the middle of these chases, better than most films. But the first three were about as good at it, and had stories that weren’t such unambitious retreads. The final set piece, in Las Vegas, is curiously low-energy and tossed-off considering how bombastic it is. And come the movie’s end, we end up more or less right back where we started, and it hasn’t even done us the courtesy of explaining how Iron Hand is any more sinister than, say, Facebook.