Matt Damon in Jason Bourne.
Matt Damon in Jason Bourne.
Once upon a time, a hugely successful spy franchise lost its star. A more affordable, less charismatic actor was secured for one underperforming installment before the original guy was coaxed back for a much-ballyhooed homecoming sequel set largely in Las Vegas.
The result, 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, is one of the very worst James Bond films. But 45 years later, that same scenario applies to Jason Bourne, an idea-starved vestigial tail on the Bourne trilogy that wrapped up nicely nine years ago. (Twelve years in movie time, because the 2004 and 2007 entries were both set in 2004.) It breaks new ground for the series only in the sense that none of the others were this boring. There's a subplot about a cabal between Langley and Silicon Valley that's sort of interesting, but it has nothing to do with Our Man Bourne at all. He's shoehorned into the movie that bears his name. The Bourne Superfluity, you might call it.
The first three Bourne flicks — very loosely based on novels by Robert Ludlum, and retconned into a "trilogy" only after the first overcame a troubled production to become a surprise hit in 2002 — were ideal for the George W. Bush era, reflecting our growing unease with action-movie masculinity.
Matt Damon was not the first actor offered the part, but he was perfect: His Bourne was a badass, but a sensible, detail-oriented badass. He would consult maps and inquire about tire pressure before embarking upon a car chase.
More important, he was a sensitive badass. His lightning reflexes and gift for using pens and rolled-up magazines as lethal instruments were the product of brainwashing. (And those hand-to-hand melees were exceptional, among the best ever staged for Western movies.) Like Will Hunting, Bourne took his exceptionalism for granted while claiming to want nothing more than to be left alone. He suffered terrible headaches. He was like a wounded, sweater-wearing bird, albeit one who might punch you in the trachea if you accidentally brushed his elbow.
No wonder Franka Potente fell for him. No wonder she had to get shot in the head in Chapter 2. (When it comes to the tired old Women in Refrigerators motif, Bourne is no better than Bond.)
Those Bournes were lean genre exercises that never made liberals feel bad for liking them; you can't make an omelet without breaking a few kneecaps. But over the course of only six screen-hours they began to feel as repetitive as the 007s (24 canonical installments and counting). So many white, middle-aged character actors — Chris Cooper/Bryan Cox/Joan Allen/David Strathairn/Albert Finney — wearing lanyards and yelling things like "This is CODE SEVEN abort" and "This is a LEVEL FOUR situation" and "We are GOING MOBILE," invariably just before ... getting into a car.
In Jason Bourne, Tommy Lee Jones steps into this role to conduct — OK, supervise — a hard-target search of every warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in this area. "This area" being Greece, Vegas and Berlin, where we already spent most of The Bourne Supremacy, the best of the series. (I have a used but good-condition set of Bourne Blu-rays for the first caller who can tell me what the hell a supremacy is.) His deputy is Alicia Vikander, an actor who appears to be having way less fun in this spy movie than she did in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. last year.
It turns out Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles' CIA admin person from the other movies) is now working with a WikiLeaks-like organization to expose the agency's assassination programs. She hacks into Langley's mainframe and copies a folder discreetly labeled BLACK OPS. You'd think the best spies in the world would put keep their dirty secrets in a folder labeled BROAD CITY SEASON 2 or GRADUATION PHOTOS. Then again, this is a series wherein Bourne, a genius superspy who knows he has been marked for death by the agency, habitually walks around in public without so much as a baseball cap for a disguise.
For all his marketable skills, Bourne is now making his living as a bare-knuckle boxer. The implication seems to be this is his penance, but if so, why does he drop the first guy he fights with one punch?
Anyway, Nicky finds out some shocking and ludicrous stuff about his past, and chances a trip to Greece to tell him — in a scene featuring acting that would stand out as wooden on late-night Cinemax. But the agency is on to her, and the chase begins. Because he needs to keep himself interested somehow, director Paul Greengrass — who earned his stripes on pseudo-documentaries like Bloody Sunday and made the best-picture-nominated Captain Phillips during his sabbatical from Bourne — uses a nighttime riot as the backdrop for this first, long action sequence. But neither this nor any of the other chases or fights are as inventive as the ones from the earlier films.
A more daring amendment to the Bourne saga might admit the awful truth that there are situations when we want the CIA to operate in this way. (Indeed, the release of The Bourne Identity was held up by nearly a year, in part because the studio was afraid the public would not embrace a film that demonized the CIA so soon after Sept. 11.) This one isn't bold enough to do that.
Meanwhile, Damon's vulnerability in the role is long gone. This is clearly a choice, as he was as huggable as ever in The Martian. But his Bourne is now a granite-jawed 40-something killer who barely speaks. And while enigmatic antiheroes can be fun to watch, that's not the character he made us care about. His motivation in the back half of this movie is revenge, pure and dumb, and he's careless about collateral damage in a way he never was before. His nemesis is Vincent Cassel, the ballet coach from Black Swan, as another CIA killer also driven by revenge. This premise was more bizarre and intriguing when these guys were just brainwashed Terminators who barely understood their homicidal programming.
Tony Gilroy, who wrote the trilogy and wrote and directed 2012's Jeremy Renner-starring The Bourne Legacy, was wise to stay away. Jason Bourne's screenplay is credited to Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, a film editor with no other writing credits. That's how clunkers like "We both want to take down the corrupt institutions that control society!" make it into a major motion picture.
But the problems go deeper than just Fast & Furious-quality dialogue. While many championed those Bourne movies from the aughts as the antidote to 007's excesses, this one makes the same mistake Spectre, last fall's not-very-good Bond flick, did: It ties its hero's specialness into some accident of his birth. This new wrinkle is a desperate bid to give Bourne an emotional stake in his campaign of throat-punching, except the filmmakers did that already, when they killed off his girlfriend 12 years ago.
"You Know His Name," the poster for Jason Bourne says. A more truthful one would read, "This Time, It's Even Personaler."