I think the new Jason Bourne movie had me when, early in the film, Julia Stiles’ returning Nicky unpacks what looks like a Russian ZX Spectrum 48k and starts using it to hack an otherwise impenetrable computer network. I’d like to think she has a quick go on Manic Miner on it when the cameras were off.
Still, by then we’d already had a ‘previously on Jason Bourne recap’, giving a brief overview of the first three films in the series. And we’d had further evidence that director Paul Greengrass – returning with Matt Damon, after the pair (wisely) skipped The Bourne Legacy – has an unmatched ability to make gazing at computer screens the most thrilling and tense thing in the world. For the umpteenth time in Greengrass-directed movies, I nearly yanked the armrests off my seat, as little graphics blipped across a monitor.
It’s good that the film is packed with so many moments such as these, because from a narrative sense, there’s not an awful lot of reason for it to exist (appreciating the deeper argument that there’s no reason for anything to exist, of course). The main, and comfortably the most interesting, Bourne arc was completed with the excellent The Bourne Ultimatum, and thus this new film opts to dig back, to try and get to the bottom of what made Jason Bourne turn into Jason Bourne in the first place. It’s not quite an origin story, but it certainly edges that way. The answers we get are about as interesting as the questions, too.
Furthermore, the irony of the film being called Jason Bourne is that there’s not an awful lot of Jason Bourne in it.
We see him slink past a Superdrug, get through airport immigration and blur by as he seeks to avoid authorities. We also get precious little dialogue, with Matt Damon – once he’s put his clothes back on after some early, not-entirely-sure-why-it’s-there Fight Club action – harnessing the ability of the character to blend in. Yet The Bourne Absence has an effect, as when he does come to the screen and spark into life – at one point with a near-Christian Bale Batman voice – it’s all the more effective. Damon knows why this character works, and he knows that showing off is not part of the deal.
Crucially, Paul Greengrass firmly knows what he’s up to as well. Because once you’ve accepted that this is supplementary Bourne, you simply can’t help but be sucked in to the audacity of his action sequences. The Bourne Legacy never had this: its action felt stilted, with cuts feeling wrong and fluidity sacrificed.
Greengrass, though, stages an extended chase through an anti-austerity rally in Greece that instantly feels important, thrilling and unsettling. His frantic cutbacks to a CIA control room, prowled by Tommy Lee Jones’ director Robert Dewey (not quite the sinister equal of David Strathairn, but heck: you still get Tommy Lee Jones, as a Sam Gerard with less running, and a reduced sense of humour).
As strong as it is, it’s not even the best sequence in the film: whilst Jason Bourne may have one too many, there are two or three really quite superb, prolonged action passages that Michael Bay could learn, well, pretty much everything from. We are very clearly in the company of experts, who know what they’re doing.
Greengrass, meanwhile, also takes Bourne around the world, never soaking in the tourist attractions, instead finding the grittiest, lesser seen areas of familiar cities, with a story that’s also steeped in contemporary concerns. You get a dose of Wikileaks, the proliferation of privacy-gobbling apps, there’s a dab of the need for patriotism, and a sprinkling of the broader surveillance culture. All in the midst of a summer blockbuster. It feels all the most important because, Christopher Nolan aside, nobody else even thinks about doing things like this on such a scale.
There’s an added quibble or two, though. The new characters get mixed returns. Vincent Cassel’s asset feels less threatening and relentless than, for instance, Joey Ansah’s Desh from Ultimatum, not even getting a character name in this case. Tommy Lee Jones sanctions no buffoonery as the face of government authority, and Alicia Vikander emerges as the strongest of the new crop, as the CIA’s latest rising star. Of the returnees, as with the majority of projects she’s in, there’s not enough Julia Stiles, either.
It’s telling, though, that most of the key criticisms of Jason Bourne are when it’s measured against the original trilogy of films, rather than blockbuster movies further afield (although perhaps Eye In The Sky deserves mention). But then those first three films, and Supremacy and Ultimatum in particular, set such a high bar. Jason Bourne doesn’t match it, in truth (I’d argue it’s got the edge on Identity, though). There’s nothing quite on the pulse-exploding level of the Waterloo opening of The Bourne Ultimatum, for instance.
But turn left on the way out of the multiplex and look at the posters for everything else, and it’s immediately clear why Jason Bourne’s return is so welcome. At best, the new Bourne is thrilling, ambitious, and breathless, its action edited to the millisecond of precision. In a summer where blockbusters have regularly spluttered, the return of Jason Bourne – warts and all – really does feel particularly welcome.
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