By Will Mann
Not since the 1960s have we lived in such an era where spies and spy-centric movies and TV shows have become so ubiquitous in our current pop culture. The franchise that started it all, James Bond, is still going strong 50 years later (well, maybe “strong-ish” is the right word to use after Spectre). Shows like Homeland and The Americans dominate TV screens around the world. And of course, there’s the movies. The past few years have seen reboots of popular spy satires, such as Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Movies about spying have reached some of their biggest critical acclaim in recent years, including Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, both of which were adaptations of real-life events surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis and the hunt and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, respectively. And then there’s Jason Bourne.
Besides James Bond and Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, Bourne might be the most famous movie-spy these days. It’s hard to believe that his last movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, was 9 years ago. I consider myself a big fan of the Bourne series. I like the character development of Jason Bourne over the course of 3 movies, the unraveling mystery of who exactly he is, and the intense action, particularly in the second and third installments, both of which were directed Paul Greengrass. (Greengrass, in addition to his work on the franchise, also directed 2013’s Captain Phillips, which was great, as well as one of my favorite movies of all time, 2006’s United 93.) After a disappointing movie whose sole purpose was to make a Jason Bourne movie without Jason Bourne (2012’s The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner, which I haven’t even bothered to see), the real appeal of this project was having director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon return to the series that made them household names.
*WARNING: SYNOPSIS CONTAINS SPOILERS*
After 10 years of hiding, Jason Bourne (Damon) is brought out by his ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has discovered more secrets about Bourne’s role in the CIA’s Treadstone program. This grabs the attention of the CIA back at Langley, where cyber-operations head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) send an assassin (Vincent Cassel) to kill Bourne and Parsons when they meet up together in Athens, Greece.
The assassin, known only as The Asset, kills Nicky as she tries to escape with Bourne on the back of his motorcycle. Determined to finish the job Nicky started, he goes to Berlin to meet the head of the hack-tivisit group Nicky was working with (Vinzenz Dissault) to gather new information. Bourne escapes to London, where Heather Lee wants to make contact with him. Before that can happen, Bourne interrogates a former agent (Bill Camp) who admits that Bourne’s father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry), had a bigger part to play in Bourne’s recruitment than he was previously led to believe.
Lee and Bourne make contact, where she directs him to a tech convention in Las Vegas. Bourne travels there, and prevents the assassination of a social media mogul (Riz Ahmed) who was about to admit he received CIA funding for surveillance purposes. He finally confronts Dewey, Lee shoots and kills Dewey, letting Bourne chase after and finally kill the Asset in a climactic, destructive set-piece on the Las Vegas strip. Lee tries to recruit Bourne back into the CIA, but a recording he leaves for her proves he knows she was lying about her intents with him. Bourne walks away towards the Washington Monument as Moby’s iconic “Extreme Ways” (which is more or less Bourne’s theme song) starts playing.
As a fan of this series, I think Jason Bourne is a satisfying installment, and one that finally scratches the 9-year-itch of waiting see Matt Damon in this role again. In terms of story, while a lot of this movie seems a little “been there, done that,” I for one liked the twist of killing off Nicky Parsons. While critics of this movie have complained it resembles the death of Bourne’s love interest Marie (Franka Potente) in The Bourne Supremacy a little too closely, I like that Parsons, who has been a signature character since the beginning of the franchise, finally had a fatal consequence because of her relationship with Bourne. That moment felt earned because we’ve spent so much time with Nicky over the course of 4 movies, and as an audience, it is easy to grieve her death given how much we’ve invested in her character over the years.
Also, I liked the emphasis on digital surveillance and social media, one of the major changes in society that occurred since the original Bourne trilogy came out. The movie radiates with post-Snowden paranoia, and if anything, is critical of the long arm of the government and the endless reach it can have on our personal communications. Having Riz Ahmed’s character be essentially a surrogate Mark Zuckerberg only helps emphasize this subversive message. And while it might be a little contrived, I liked that there was yet another piece of the puzzle for Bourne to discover about his identity and his past: the role his father played in recruiting him into the CIA’s Treadstone program.
However, despite these praises, the movie isn’t perfect by any stretch. While entertaining, I’m not sure it reaches the heights of the original Bourne trilogy, and if I’m being honest, there were several moments were I felt disengaged or downright bored by what was going on. It’s not as good as any of the previous installments I’ve seen, and while it is entertaining, certain things do take you out of the film. Alicia Vikander, playing an American CIA agent who graduated from Stanford, can’t seem to do an accent that’s the least bit discernable. Tommy Lee Jones looks grumpy and bored for big chunks of the movie. And whereas previous movies had Bourne use his wits or training to get the information he wanted, in this installment he literally picks up a device at a kiosk at a convention that can eavesdrop on conversations 50 feet away. The real missed opportunity seems to be with The Asset, who could’ve been a more intriguing villain, but instead his background and personal vendetta against Bourne are cliché and forgettable.
However, those flaws can’t detract that Jason Bourne is ultimately a good, entertaining, solid summer popcorn flick. The action is well-directed and doesn’t lose any of the intensity of the previous Bourne films, and I would expect nothing less from Greengrass & co. Damon owns the role and steps back into it with relative ease. I probably would have appreciated a plot that gave us something that was a little different, or a plot that was a little more radical given how much time has passed since The Bourne Ultimatum, but what we got was fine and serviceable for the most part. It’s definitely not worth the wait, but Jason Bourne is an exciting revisit of a franchise most of its biggest fans, myself included, thought we would never get.