“I volunteered because of a lie.” ~ Jason Bourne
“You’re never going to find any peace, not until you admit to yourself who you really are.” ~ Robert Dewey
“We’ve just been hacked. Could be worse than Snowden.” ~ Craig Jeffers
“He’s seen things. He knows things. What if he’s not coming for us? What if it’s something else?” ~ Heather Lee
“I know who I am. I remember. I remember everything.” ~ Jason Bourne
“Remembering everything doesn’t mean you know everything.” ~ Nicky Parsons
Nearly a decade after Matt Damon last played the enigmatic amnesiac former government assassin, he returns to the signature role and title character in the new film Jason Bourne. The fifth in the series, and fourth to feature Damon after the Bourne-free The Bourne Legacy of 2012, this brings back director Paul Greengrass, who took on the helm of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum to tell another tale of the life of the rugged former spy, a tale that is timely indeed. The result is a ferocious, well paced action film that is a worthy addition to the franchise, all while continuing to give us a sympathetic (though deadly) protagonist.
Years after the exposure of Operation Blackbriar, the amnesiac Jason Bourne (Damon) is living a secluded life, not as amnesiac as he was when we first met him in The Bourne Identity. He’s older but still dangerous, making a living fighting in illegal fight rings. Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a former CIA analyst with history with Bourne from the first three films, has become part of a cyber hacktivist group, seeking to expose the Agency’s black ops programs. Documents she uncovers in the Agency’s mainframe are related to Bourne, and she seeks him out, setting off the events of the film. Before things are done, a lethal operative (Vincent Cassel), the Agency’s director (Tommy Lee Jones), and an Agency official (Alicia Vikander) are all pulled into unfolding events.
It might well have been enough back in 2007 to have left Jason Bourne to rest, given the way The Bourne Ultimatum wrapped up. Damon and Greengrass weren’t involved in The Bourne Legacy, which had a new character played by Jeremy Renner and events closely tied into Ultimatum. The two did decide to return for another go at Bourne, with the current state of the world, particularly hacktivism and intelligence agency secrecy being recurrent concerns at present. Those concerns reflect themselves very much in the story, written by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, as do concepts like anti government protests, family secrets, and corporate intrigue. The character’s quite different than novelist Robert Ludlum would have envisioned him- the first books were firmly settled in Cold War politics and period terrorism. And yet Bourne’s adapted well for the current era.
As dangerous as the character physically is, from the first film the audience has been able to sympathize with him because of the situation he found himself in- having no idea who he is at first must be traumatic, and then to lose a loved one and be hounded by shadowy forces who just won’t leave him alone.... that tends to leave one on the character’s side. That continues here, as the story has Jason learning more about himself, secrets and lies that shake his world view, and the story plays to that.
In grounding itself so strongly in real world sensibilities, the story also gives the film a good sense of authenticity. Suspicion of government agencies, cyber-leaks of troubling secrets, and corporate dealings are prevalent themes in our lives, as is ongoing worries about terrorism, and these are woven right into the script. It makes things quite timely indeed as the story unfolds- it doesn’t seem that implausible in a real world setting.
The first film, directed by Doug Liman, established the series’ signature techniques of fierce action, well paced and dangerous car chases, and physical fights- all of which were meant to serve the story, as opposed to the other way around. Paul Greengrass picked up these techniques for Supremacy and Ultimatum, deftly handling complicated action, sweeping geography in cities and countrysides, and evoking building tension throughout the films. Fundamentally a Bourne film, filled with action sequences as they were, still were filmed in ways that let the audience keep track of what was going on, instead of feeling lost in an action sequence (the disciples of quick cut edits, I’m looking at you). That still applies here in Jason Bourne, with action that still lets you be aware of where the players are, instead of leaving you dizzy. While there is some of the rapid editing one might expect out of action, it’s not overdone at all, and doesn’t leave you bewildered.
Greengrass has his style as a director, established in the earlier films, and reflected in other works like United 93 and Captain Phillips. It’s a style that works, fortunately. He brings a solid sense of knowing how to get the best out of actors, as well as slowly but relentlessly building up tension and dread. This film takes the franchise into new directions, but meshes well with what’s come before it- particularly in the first three films, and that reflects well on the director and his crew. The institutional paranoia that tends to be central to the franchise infests the film, driving up tension as things go along.
And the cast has much to do with how the film works. It’s been standard through the series to bring in a lethal counterpart to Bourne. In this case, Vincent Cassel plays a man referred to as the Asset. He’s a ferocious operative with a personal grudge where Bourne is concerned, and little in the way of mercy. Cassel brings an international flavour to the role, and his character is a legacy of what has come before. Where the old black ops programs were exposed, new ones were put in place, and the Asset is a result of that, a darker version of Bourne who lacks a moral world view.
Another aspect of the series has been that of the corrupt, devious, or power hungry senior official. Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and David Straithairn filled that role before, and here we get the welcome presence of the great Tommy Lee Jones as CIA director Robert Dewey. He’s a man of hidden agendas and motives, who hasn’t learned from the past and instead reinvests in a program very similar to what’s come before. It’s a treat to watch Jones in pretty much any role; his innate sly grouchy disposition, way with words, and world weary look are some of the things that make him so compelling to watch. And it’s enjoyable to see him share the screen with Damon’s Bourne- the two characters are another kind of reflection of each other, one older, the other younger, and one having had given himself to an ends justifies the means scenario, while the other seeks an end to the nightmares of his past.
Julia Stiles returns, however briefly, as Nicky Parsons, who at first was the resourceful analyst, deep in with the Agency, before breaking away from them and placing herself squarely on the side of Bourne in Ultimatum. There’s some complicated and unspoken history between the two characters, which the actors play to, and her decision to join an organization that has more of an anarchistic streak to it is understandable given her own history.
Alicia Vikander gets a lot to do as Heather Lee, the cyber ops head for the CIA. She seems to be playing both sides off against each other- or is she playing her own game? That’s a question that comes up through the film, as the character shows that her true loyalty might well be to herself and her own ambitions. And ambitious she is. There’s also pragmatism to her personality, and the actress invests these elements into her performance, making the character formidable, if entirely enigmatic.
It’s good to see Damon back as Bourne. He brings the intensity, resourcefulness, and sympathy to the character that we’ve seen from him before. Jason has isolated himself from the world, has a dark past with much to make amends for, but his instincts from the beginning of this series have generally leaned in the right direction, showing mercy instead of taking revenge. It separates him from the villains, who even if they’re in positions of authority don’t really care about the collateral damage they cause. The character struggles with questions about who he is, and when backed into a corner, he moves forward with initiative and resolve. Bourne remains a compelling lead, and Damon plays him with a mixture that is both sympathetic and dangerous.
Will the Bourne franchise carry on after this? If Damon and Greengrass come back, that would be welcome. The newest movie respects and builds on what has come before, presents a dark scenario that feels authentic because it grounds itself firmly in the real world. Its action sequences serve the story well, and the director methodically builds tension and suspense as he goes along. The cast, returning and new, fit their roles well, and the movie moves along briskly, proving to be entertaining all the way. Perhaps next time we can find Bourne at odds with Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross.