The last time Jason Bourne was spotted in theatres was nine years ago, only six years after 9/11. The trilogy dug a needle into the nerve of government intel and down and dirty agent programs that felt like it was a part of the real world nearly a decade ago. These weren’t James Bond “super spies” that felt at home in the Cold War. These were “assets” that could be activated with a text message from a cell phone.
But the world has changed since then. “Edward Snowden” has joined “terrorist” as one of the government’s four letter words, and instead of breaking into a government office room to retrieve and fax paper documents to expose a government initiative, a laptop and USB stick half a world away does the trick.
‘Jason Bourne’ feels like an out-of-time, unnecessary appendage that’s been Frankesteined onto an already well-crafted trilogy. The three films preceding it (we’ll leave The Bourne Legacy out of this), managed to show Jason progress through each film and gain further knowledge or closure on his past.The final film left him licking wounds from his final confrontation, but he was finally rewarded with all of his memories.
This film opens with an older Bourne troubled over a past memory. He chews on it in his quiet moments, trying to make sense of details. But this older Bourne is more passive and doesn’t do anything to resolve the issue or look into it any further. What pulls him back into the web of government intel are just situations that conveniently land at his feet. Unfortunately, that is how the entire film tries to function: Information, through other people or Internet searches, just shows up and lets Bourne move to the next point. In previous films, detective work was required. Multiple locations were called and cross referenced and used against each other in ingenious, McGuyvered ways. Now Google Maps solves everything. And camera systems can track Bourne’s every move. At least when the story calls for it.
It really brings to light how many spy tropes have gone extinct in the last ten years thanks to computer networks, satellites and spy systems. What could be an engaging, 10 minute sequence to obtain information is now whittled down to 10 seconds of hitting computer keys in some cases. And for a moment, it feels like maybe this Bourne movie gets that the world has changed this much, and this will be an evolved movie that takes the lean, mean, gritty attitude and apply it to the digital age. The CIA wants backdoors into social media platforms and have the ability to hack any camera system to detect anyone from The Pentagon. It’s a story we’re all aware of with Snowden in the news and it’s a major concern.
So when Bourne manages to spend hours without detection, it feels more like a scripted convenience than any resourcefulness on his part. Cameras detect him when the plot calls for it, but it’s always to provide just enough time for a computer to complete a process before Bourne has to be on the run again. Because the script also called for a chase scene.
This is a pattern that hurts the film and really puts everyone at the mercy of the plot instead of giving the illusion the characters are actually controlling events. In ways, this is how all of the films sort of operated, but in a more primitive world, there were more creative ways to make the enemy aware of Bourne’s whereabouts or to make it seem like it took Bourne more effort to find certain information than just getting coordinates to a hacker with a laptop.
This reaches its worst at an Expo in Vegas where Bourne needs to keep tabs on a person’s conversation. Given the Expo is about digital communication, there happens to be a booth with small microphones on a table and another booth with a “Track yourself!” device that Bourne simply grabs and slips into the character’s pocket. This is a perfect time where having the skill to access the person’s cell phone and turn on its GPS and microphone feature would have been a fantastic solution. And it would play into the overall theme of government spying. But Bourne doesn’t do that. Because the script delivers him two Expo booths with miracle solutions.
In contrast to its gritty camera style that tries to visually show improvisation, the film’s script goes out of its way at times to make things as convenient as possible for characters. I was actually thrown at the film’s dramatic climax because it actually felt too easy for Bourne to accomplish. It felt like a set up where a twist is about to throw you to reveal the real issue. But this turns out to not be the case. The problems just resolve themselves and leave you asking yourself what all of this was for to begin with.
When the film goes back to its traditional chase scenes, some of these factors can be forgiven. Director Paul Greengrass knows how to create tension and raise stakes with these moments. And occasionally he gets little moments to show how the modern world has impacted his Bourne tropes. A program analyzes a map of a city and delivers predicted escape paths to an assassin at one point that lets him stay on Bourne’s trail a lot longer than Bourne would like. It falls into the “There’s an app for that” mentality and it feels at home in the Bourne Universe. And part of that is that despite the digital convenience, there is still effort required to get what is required. Greengrass’ direction provides the chases and thrills expected in a Bourne movie. And Matt Damon returns with the stoicness and willingness to throw punches that the character is known for.
Greengrass manages to deliver an action film that has thrills, and has moments of intelligence and problem solving the Bourne films are known for, and for a general action film, it delivers the goods with a great, if not bit cartoonish Las Vegas car chase as its crown jewel, but it’s almost as if the film takes the audience’s knowledge of the characters’ resourcefulness for granted and just says “Of course they managed to pull it off! We won’t say exactly what went into it, but believe me, it was incredibly well thought out!” Half the fun of these movies is seeing how the characters construct solutions to their problems along with kinetic fist fights and furious gunplay. Otherwise this is just a generic action film that can evaporate from our minds as soon as we get home from the theatre.