Jason Bourne has returned. After three genre-defining films and one hilariously bad spin off (The Bourne Misfire, I think was the title) that stunk of cash-cow milking by the studio, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon have revived their amnesiac anti-Bond for one more bout. Regular readers (if I have such a thing) will have guessed how I feel about reboots, rehashes and remakes of successful and beloved characters and series (for the benefit of non-regular readers, I’m pretty cynical about them) so the announcement of a further instalment didn’t exactly fill me with excitement. But with Greengrass and Damon on board following their excellent work on Supremacy and Ultimatum, there was at least some potential.
Stylistically at least, there are no surprises here. This is not a criticism; Greengrass’ kinetic direction suits Bourne like a hotwired car. His work on films like United 93 and Captain Phillips has established him as one of Hollywood’s foremost purveyors of nerve-shredding tension. Jason Bourne sees him employ his hand held documentary style pretty much throughout the whole thing creating a sense of paranoia that suits both the post-Snowden state surveillance themes and the frenetic action scenes. He knows when and where the reign it in, though, allowing the calmer scenes to tip toe before breaking into a sprint for the set pieces.
These, too are impressive. One of the best things about Ultimatum in particular is that the set pieces were not simply there for the sake of meeting genre requirements; they served and told the story. The same is true here almost all the time. An impressive cat-and-mouse sequence set during a Greek austerity demonstration/riot both establishes and kills characters while getting Bourne back in the game. There’s a London-set sequence that manages to not repeat Ultimatum’s Waterloo station set piece or feel like a rehash; it’s tense, well choreographed and drives the plot forwards. The Las Vegas sequence, while sometimes hard to follow, is as good as anything the series has offered until a what should have been a climactic confrontation leads to a car chase which, while impressive, feels tacked on after what precedes it. It’s Bourne becoming an assassin again after almost 4 films of resistance and doesn’t quite fit.
The Bourne films always cast strongly with the likes of Brian Cox, Clive Owen, Albert Finney, Joan Allen and Chris Cooper all giving strong service. Here, Tommy Lee Jones’ experienced CIA chief makes you wonder why he’s never featured before and Vincent Cassel is so perfect a fit as the nameless ‘Asset’ it again makes you wonder whether he was in one of the previous films; not necessarily a good thing as this their characters feel a bit like archetypes. It’s Alicia Vikander’s resolute CIA cyber security officer (and Riz Ahmed’s compromised social media guru) who offers something new: she is driven ambition rather than just by-the-numbers spy games; she makes a genuine attempt to see Bourne’s point of view, and adds a contemporary twist. Her character’s expertise adds an interesting new layer to the premise: how does one hide when facial recognition software and any CCTV camera in the world could be used to find you? It’s a fresh new challenge for a spy who can beat anyone at fisticuffs, gunplay or driving.
Jason Bourne retains the unrefined, rebellious edge that drove the Bond producers to up their game in the Daniel Craig era, turning their suave secret agent into a cold, insubordinate killer. Bourne, in Greengrass’ eyes anyway represents a reaction to Bond’s ‘Queen and Country’ ethos. Seen as an enemy by the very people who trained him, he’s on his own side rather than America’s, with loyalty earned rather by sworn. Here, the Treadstone program that created Bourne has been replaced by the distinctly fascist sounding Iron Hand. It’s probably not deliberate, more of a zeitgeist-y consideration, that the CIA’s devious plan (spying on everyone in the world via their online habits), is almost identical to that of Blofeld in latest Bond adventure Spectre. Evil, it seems, is a matter of perspective when it comes to spies and while I’m one of many people who hope that Bond is reinvented again, I would be happy if this turned out to be Bourne’s noisy, exciting, subversive but kind of slight swansong.