Regular Fedora visitors will know that I love spy movies and am a sucker for stories about amnesia, so the Bourne saga – about a spy who forgets who he is and searches for answers from his old employers at the CIA – has been a very good fit for me! I went to see Jason Bourne at the weekend, my expectations tempered by some lukewarm reviews but nothing had truly prepared me for what I saw …
The following review is sarcastically offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog – you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been more properly selected.
“Why would he come back now?”
First, some context: the character first appeared in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity in 1980 and remains for many his best novel overall (when it comes to the author this may not be saying much but let’s dodge that literary freight train) and he went on to write two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990). Since Ludlum’s death in 2001, Eric Van Lustbader has continued the series, the tenth of which, The Bourne Enigma, was published last month. Identity was turned into a two-part TV-Movie in 1988 starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, which I saw at the time and liked a lot, though I suspect it creaks a bit when viewed today …
” I remember. I remember everything.”
The initial Ludlum trilogy was very loosely adapted for the cinema with Matt Damon as Bourne, the three films released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively. However, after the first, the adaptations were so loose as to have virtually nothing in common with the original books, which makes sense as they are about Bourne’s attempts to stop real-life terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, who since 1994 has been in jail in France. The new film, sadly not titled ‘Bourne Again,’ again stars Damon (he also co-produces) from a screenplay credited to the the film’s director, Paul Greengrass and its editor, Christopher Rouse – it is the first not directly related to a Ludlum source, though to call it ‘original’ would I think be a bit of stretch …
“I volunteered because of a lie!”
Bourne is ‘off the grid’ making some sort of living as a bare-knuckle fighter in Greece, still haunted by dreams of his violent past. His old comrade Nicky (Julia Stiles) tracks him down (we don’t know how) after hacking the CIA black ops file (which, conversely, is really simple, as the CIA computer file is helpfully labelled ‘Black Ops’ by the way … it’s that sort of film) with news about Bourne’s father, whose death originally spurred him on to become a super soldier for the CIA. But the CIA are on to them, Nicky gets fridged and Jason heads off to eliminate the killers. That is pretty much it. You get a big motorbike chase in Greece, hand-to-hand combat in Berlin and London, and then an extended car chase in Las Vegas. And that, really, truly, is pretty much it.
So what’s the new film actually like? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Jason Bourne is the mostly unbelievable pile of redundant tripe and quite the most banal and lifeless piece of ‘entertainment’ I have seen at the cinema in years. The story could literally fit on the back of an envelope, as could all of Damon’s dialogue – he may speak about a dozen lines in the entire film (OK, maybe more, but not much), mostly just grunting and grimacing his way through it. A thoroughly exhausted-looking Tommy Lee Jones plays a CIA villain with no shading at all while Alicia Vikander, as his ambitious (and of course young and good-looking) analyst Heather, delivers every line with the flattest possible intonation. This really irritating monotone does however give rise to the only bit of (probably unintentional) humour in the film – as she speaks is an earpiece to ‘The Asset’ (played by the great Vincent Cassel, who has nothing to play with or against here), she gives him road directions in a combat zone, sounding every bit like a GPS app for hit men, which made me laugh out loud even though it was meant to be making me tense. But everything about this film is just so clichéd (and yes, the ending is ripped off from the ultimate spy amnesia story, The Manchurian Candidate) and contrived that it is hard to care. Also, most of the plot is just plain stupid …
Having established that the CIA can pretty much track anyone in seconds in the opening hacking sequence in Iceland (a pretty unimpressive bunch of hackers if the subtitles are to be believed, one saying to another, “use SQL to corrupt the databases”, a typical example of the superfluous dumbness of the film’s dialogue), it turns out that Bourne just goes around looking exactly the same as he always did, catching flights and trains all over the world and nobody can get hold of him. He does this throughout but only in the Vegas sequence is it called into question, and then only because it is convenient for the story. I mean, he doesn’t even wear a hat – didn’t they teach you anything about disguise at spy school, Jason?
“The next bullet’s in your head!”
If this had been the 1980s and the movie starred Stallone of Schwarzenegger then it probably would have passed muster, but Damon and Greengrass are supposed to be far savvier and smarter than that. They are supposed to be deconstructing this kind of film for crying out loud, not just lazily rehashing every known trope in the book. But sadly not, Damon’s is a one-note performance that basically seems to be channeling the moronic version of himself from Team America, while Greengrass treats his audience with the utmost contempt, literally spelling everything out of importance on the screen. For instance, when Heather cracks open the Bourne file, it literally has pull out quotes so the audience will understand all the plot-relevant bits – and she then reads them out in case we didn’t get the message. In the ops room, every time something needs to be done (like re-tasking a satellite or calling on a team of agents), we never just see it happen, oh no. First we hear it being asked for (“Initiate Alpha team”), then relayed (“Calling Alpha”), then we are told it is in place (“Team standing by”), and then we see it happen! This is narrative for the hard of thinking and is just patronising in the extreme. And as for the topical references to political unrest in Greece and the Snowden hacking, these are just window dressing, discarded as soon as they are mentioned. The only real effort seems to have been to make the two big chases exciting – which they are, but very much in the modern, video game, Fast and Furious mode, in which the laws of Physics really don’t apply.
“You’re never going to find any peace. Not till you admit to yourself who you really are.”
Easily the least ambitious of all the Bourne films, I would bet real money that the Chamberlain TV-Movie holds up much better. Trite, stupid and unimaginative, apart from the opening and closing chases (which as mentioned above are dynamic but totally unreal), Jason Bourne is a disastrous farrago that retrospectively tarnishes all the previous films of its writer-director. I would write more, but I’ve forgotten the movie already …
The Jason Bourne Mysteries
- The Bourne Identity (1980)
- The Bourne Supremacy (1986)
- The Bourne Ultimatum (1990)
- The Bourne Legacy (2004) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Betrayal (2007) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Sanction (2008) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Deception (2009) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Objective (2010) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Dominion (2011) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Imperative (2012) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Retribution (2013) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Ascendancy (2014) by Eric Van Lustbader
- The Bourne Enigma (2016) by Eric Van Lustbader