Directed by Paul Greengrass
Let's get this out the way first - the Bourne trilogy, Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum, is just about perfect. Hands down my favourite film trilogy, each film works as a stand alone film and as a chapter in a continuing story. The last shot in the third film ties in neatly and satisfactorily with the first shot in the first film. The brilliance in the decision to overlap the second and third films, to show Bourne's journey in Ultimatum to that phone conversation with Pam Landy at the end of Supremacy, can never be overstated. Each action set piece grows organically from the story, never do the films feel like they are servicing the stunts. The tension and paranoia and stress are tangible. Nearly every line of dialogue, every shot, every frame, every actor's choice is just about perfection. Joan Allen's Pam Landy's exasperation with David Strathairn's Noah Vosen's corporate speak and his constant use of the phrase "real time" is subtle and the actors and the director never draw attention to it, but that it is there on the screen, understated and underplayed, and so, so much fun to watch. The subtle use of the David Webb persona in the films, the refusal to kill when not forced to, the grief and frustration when pushed to murder, the mystery of who is driving when Bourne finds himself in an unknown location. Again, never overplayed, never the focus of the film. Another understated element in a film series just packed with them. Moments like that and Bourne's reliance on real world found objects to escape or to take down enemies or to subvert control from the people chasing him, add layers upon layers to an already more-than-enjoyable series of films. And then Moby's Extreme Ways plays and the audience collectively smiles and the credits roll and the world is good and pure and the evil bureaucrats have been stopped.
To oversimplify it, the Bourne trilogy is more fun and suspenseful and tension-filled than nearly every action film combined, before and after. After fourteen years I still grin like an idiot when Bourne tells Marie to buckle up.
A discussion of the influence of the Bourne trilogy on film would probably test the patience of most anyone who reads these things and could easily break ten thousand words. At the core of the argument would be this, without The Bourne Identity there is no Casino Royale. Now, discuss amongst yourselves.
An utter misstep in the direction of the franchise, The Bourne Legacy stripped the optimism and hope away from the preceding films and presented a world where not only were the evil bureaucrats winning, but all of the death and pain, all of the Bourne character's sacrifices of his body, of his mind, of his soul in the first three films, were for nothing. Legacy might have made a fine spy thriller once all the Bourne connections are stripped from it. The cast was fine, the action set pieces were fine, but the pessimism was nearly oppressive. Someone once said to me, when we were talking about Legacy, that when Extreme Ways started playing they felt that the film hadn't earned that moment. I wish I could remember who it was, I'd give them credit here. I still think that's a great way to sum up one's feelings about Legacy. Casino Royale worked hard, real hard, to earn the Bond, James Bond sting at the end. None of the different pieces of Legacy came together in a completely satisfactory manner. An okay thriller, just not up to the standards of the original trilogy.
Which, finally dear reader, brings us to Jason Bourne, the latest chapter in the Bourne universe. Some of the old gang is back, Matt Damon, Paul Greengrass - director of Supremacy and Ultimatum, editor Christopher Rouse, composer John Powell. Who is missing might answer one of Jason Bourne's issues - Oliver Wood, cinematographer of the trilogy, does not return. Where the first three films set new standards for naturalism, for spontaneity, for seamlessness, those are missing from the new film. Often the chaos of the action set pieces is just that - chaos. Where the geography of the action was carefully laid out for the audience previously, in a way that was never forced or overstated, so the viewer always knew where the players were, where they were going and what was happening, sometimes that is missing from Jason Bourne. And where the action of the previous films was, for the most part, grounded in real physics, or at least the physics of the universe the films occupy, some of the set pieces in the new film have an almost Fast & Furious relationship with physics.
Another returning member of the old gang is Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons. And she is so, so, so bad in this film. She doesn't act so much as she reads her lines, looks determined and scared and collects her cheque. After her solid performances in the previous films, where she was believable and real, this is a real disappointment. As bad as she was in Dexter, this is so much worse. All of her scenes have a rehearsal feel to them, like she is working out the blocking and such, and will bring the real energy and her A-game to the real shoot. Her role here is little more than exposition and a reason to start the fun, but still, when you're in a film with this kind of cast a lazy performance will take the audience out of the film.
There is also a problem with Jason Bourne's script, with the plot. Well, one of the plots. Where the revenge part of the plot works, the social media paranoia doesn't. The tech parts of the script come across as written by people whose only exposure to tech is walking by a copy of Wired on a news stand or pursuing the headlines of the Geek tab of Fark.com. Where the first three films have plot points that are evergreen, that feel current and real and contemporary no matter how much time has passed since their release date, some of Jason Bourne's plot points are going to be horribly dated. Things like dropping Edward Snowden's name, the paranoia of what a government might want to do with the pictures of your barbecue you posted yesterday, that some social media platforms might be selling your personal information for nefarious reasons, these might have felt hip and current when the script was being written, but now they come across as news from five years ago. And it will only get worse as time goes on. There's a moment in Ultimatum when the British journalist mentions Blackbriar during a phone conversation. We cut to an NSA office where the phrase has been flagged. The reality of the film universe, where every cell phone conversation on the planet is being monitored for key words, is never mentioned, attention is never drawn to it. It is paranoia made real and it is beautifully downplayed. Jason Bourne is the film written by people who felt that that moment needed two hours of screen time.
Where the film does work is as a re-set after Legacy. By the end, some of the optimism has returned. And when Extreme Ways starts playing, the film has earned it. Without going into the plot, I think this is a nice set up for a new series of Bourne films. This isn't a reboot or anything like that, it's more like the first volume in the next set of adventures featuring Jason Bourne. Where Identity works as a stand alone film, I feel like Jason Bourne can't be fully judged until the entire story is told.
And this is where I sing the praises of Alicia Vikander. She is so, so, so, so good in this movie. I've only seen her in Ex Machina and The Man from U.N.C.L.E before this but I believe she is one of the great talents of her generation. At only 27 she has a presence and a charisma and a talent with few peers. And she's the new Lara Croft. In Jason Bourne she is surrounded on all sides by some iconic talent, be it Matt Damon or Tommy Lee Jones or Vincent Cassel, but she more than holds her own. She is a welcome addition to the Bourne mythology and I can only hope she returns for future chapters.
For the most part, the performances in Jason Bourne are solid. With the exception of Julia Stiles, everyone brings their best to the piece. Riz Ahmed and Bill Camp, both of HBO's The Night Of (which, if you're not watching, I feel sad for you, son), bring complexity and depth to characters that would just be wallpaper in any other hands. Tommy Lee Jones is Tommy Lee Jones. And then there's the reuniting of Matt Damon and Vincent Cassel. Love it or hate it or whatever, Jason Bourne will make you want to follow it up with Oceans 12. There is something surreal seeing these two actors in particular chasing each other across Las Vegas.
Now, is Jason Bourne fun? Damn, yes. For all of its faults, it is still wall-to-wall action and suspense and it is thrilling and full of action set pieces that will influence the genre for next decade or so. The first three films set such a standard, set the bar so high, that Jason Bourne can't help but feel like a disappointment at times. Now, excuse me, I have to go listen to Extreme Ways at an uncomfortable volume.
And, seriously, watch The Night Of.