[Slight spoilers] Jason Bourne has always been a static character. In the original, excellent trilogy of films the compelling core character elements stemmed not from Bourne’s own development, but rather kinetic movement around the character, and character suspense was derived, largely, from the methodic layer peeling of the amnesiac’s foggy past. Fast forward nearly a decade after 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum (a title that demands any future installments better have a damned good reason for existing) and it seems Jason Bourne (the new film and the character) has picked up right where the third entry left off: “I remember everything” Matt Damon voices over a black screen before the initial frames plunge us back into a hazy and dreamy recap of the prior movies. So if 2007 was the ultimatum, and Jason Bourne remains a stoic, static character the big, simple question becomes, “why?”
Co-writer and director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the acclaimed Supremacy and Ultimatum, doesn’t seem to have a clear answer. We’re thrown into a familiar plot: Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) has uncovered a new shady Black Ops program and brings Bourne back into the fold (“Just because you remember everything, doesn’t mean you know everything,” she tells him). This, naturally, leads into Bourne digging up more bits and pieces about his past, namely that of his father’s involvement in the Treadstone initiative. While this answer to the “why” question ultimately proves to be Jason Bourne‘s biggest problem, it provides enough narrative tension for a tense and thrilling first hour, particularly a perfectly staged chase sequence that ebbs and flows and redirects all during a riot in Athens, Greece. Back home CIA director Robert Dewey (a fine Tommy Lee Jones) and protege Heather Lee (the ever reliable Alicia Vikander) bark orders and track computers and speak into headsets to try to bring Bourne in, all while Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse give us their half-baked effort to be timely in a social media-as-surveillance subplot. As always, there’s an Asset (Vincent Cassel), a fellow Treadstone agent, who is actually a character here, rather than just a furrowed brow and a gun.
For the first two acts Jason Bourne is, nearly, as engaging as its predecessors save for a lack of intrigue (we know the mystery now, and we know who the baddies are). Espionage set pieces and double crosses are executed with tight precision, and Damon is as committed and grimacing as ever to boot. Further, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd keep things interesting visually, replete with the quick digital pans and zooms. But despite the handheld camerawork being consistently stylized, there’s just too much absurd romance in the final act, which is where much of Jason Bourne falls apart. The answer to the “why” question is hollow. By the time Bourne gets the answers about his father it not only changes nothing in terms of the landscape and where the evil lies, it changes nothing about Bourne’s own character or behavior.
To make matters worse, Greengrass juxtaposes this narrative emptiness with an absurd level of romantic, almost fatalistic, importance placed on the action finale. These movies have always flirted right at the edge of plausibility, even if that plausibility is extremely slight. Its light themes have always been rooted in real world concerns, however thinly connected, whereas here they feel like set dressing. While I can respect the heavy handed significance of setting the finale in Las Vegas (maybe the biggest metaphor for American greed and corruption), as well as the clear skill and craft involved, it is absolutely ridiculous, and threatens to deconstruct everything that came before. If nothing less, it is the antithesis of what we know of Bourne from the past four films. In a series in which the action is organic, in which violence is a last resort, Jason Bourne‘s finale is pure stupid build-up and payoff with a side of righteous revenge. The car chase through the streets of Vegas results in hundreds of human casualties, and both it and the subsequent fist fight feel like they belong in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film in the worst way. On its own, the movie is a tight thriller. Paul Greengrass and company deliver a stylistically sound film with labyrinthian, double-cross heavy set pieces. But the problem is that Jason Bourne, evidenced by having its protagonist’s name as the title, seems to only have one answer to the “why” question: perpetuate, and thus dilute, the franchise.