The Bourne Identity Crisis
Minor Spoilers Ahead
I can’t say that I had the highest of hopes for the fifth installment of the Bourne film franchise, especially after the 2 hour nap that was The Bourne Legacy, but with Matt Damon’s return to the spotlight and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) back at the helm, I was excited to see where they would take the franchise. Unfortunately, Jason Bourne is trapped between sticking to the series’ roots and trying to break out of the old formula.
The first three Bourne films were all about Jason Bourne’s past; who is he, and why is he so good at killing people with pens? This question is what fueled the plot behind the trilogy, as Bourne tracked down all the people involved in Treadstone, the black ops program that created his breed of super-assassin. It all came to a head with The Bourne Ultimatum, where he learned his true identity (David Webb) and finally broke away from it all.
Jason Bourne, however, decided that apparently there’s more to the story than three films could cover. Without spoiling too much, the film delves into Bourne’s history with his father, his father’s involvement in the Treadstone project, and Bourne’s subsequent volunteering to serve. It’s a very contrived and overused plot device that really doesn’t serve to progress Bourne’s already complicated story.
The rest of the film revolves around CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his protégé Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) as they work with “Deep Dream” social media creator Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) to enact one of the greatest surveillance programs the world has ever seen. Rather than feel like a natural part of the plot, this whole storyline feels like an add-on to extend the life of the film, with the emphasis clearly being put on the newly revealed information about Bourne’s past.
That’s the most annoying part about Jason Bourne, how Bourne is brought out of hiding (aka, knocking out large Serbian men with coma-punches). At the film’s onset we’re reintroduced to Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who’s clearly ditched her former employer as she’s now hacking into the CIA from a hacker den in Switzerland. This is where she finds the old Treadstone files that kickstart the plot. Even with Parsons’ personal connection to program, this discovery feels random at best, and at this point it feels like we’re beating an assassinated horse here.
Now, for those of you who come for the action, you won’t be disappointed. In terms of his action films, this is probably Greengrass’ best work. Jason Bourne still has that gritty, darkly-lit shaky-cam style, but this time around the fast cuts work perfectly. The camera still moves around a lot, but everything we see is far more intentionally-placed and easy to recognize. As far as presentation goes, Jason Bourne is a treat to watch. The action itself is also still very Jason Bourne, and I was pretty impressed with how much Matt Damon’s still got it. After all, it just wouldn’t be a Bourne film if he didn’t counter a knife attack with an everyday object.
On the acting side of things, all the performances are good, but the writing never really allows them to be great. Matt Damon plays a much more wearied Bourne, living a life of constant hiding, but it was that good-hearted charm that made Jason Bourne so likeable in the first place. Now, he just feels like Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell Conviction. Tommy Lee does what Tommy Lee does as Dewey, but frankly I’m sick of this series having some guy go “Bourne’s involved, guess we better kill him.” Tommy Lee sells it, for the most part, but the character itself we’ve seen plenty times before.
Riz Ahmed’s Kalloor is just sort of there with his social media plotline, an integral part of the story but without any real importance to it. Still, Ahmed plays the part well, despite his limited screen time. The same can be said of Dewey’s asset, the nameless assassin played by Vincent Cassel. The asset, on top of being Bourne’s nemesis in this outing, is personally connected to Bourne thanks to Bourne’s exposing of Black Briar back in Ultimatum. While it was interesting to see the unexpected consequences of Bourne’s actions, the connection doesn’t really serve anything else besides giving the bad guy some depth, depth that misses the mark for a character that’s listed on IMDB as “Asset.”
Julia Stiles was unfortunately really stale with Nicky Parsons this time around, a shame since Parsons has always been one of my favorite characters. Her dialogue is as formulaic as her acting, and the character itself is totally wasted. I would have loved to have seen a more in-depth look at Parsons’ hacker life, but Bourne picks up the torch early and runs with it to the end.
Alicia Vikander’s Lee is probably the most interesting character in the film. Lee is a young and ambitious member of the CIA, and leads the search for Parsons after she hacks into their database. She seems to be the only smart person in the whole movie, giving Bourne the desperately-needed benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately a lot of her dialogue can be a bit dull and personality-less, but Vikander manages to deliver a surprisingly strong performance, with plenty of subtle emotion lying just under Lee’s rigid exterior. The real reason Lee is interesting, however, is in how she’ll interact with Bourne in possible future films.
Bourne’s past is finally, truly laid to rest, but his future remains to be seen. The series is left off to move into some pretty cool, new territory for Bourne, which is itself half of the problem with Jason Bourne. Had the film moved forward in the first place, rather than spend most of the film in an unnecessary epilogue for the original trilogy, then Jason Bourne could have been something special. Instead, we have another decent entry in a long-running franchise. Jason Bourne throws plenty of punches, but it doesn’t nail that KO.