Silver Screen: Jason Bourne **
Oh, what a difference a writer makes.
Tony Gilroy wrote all three installments of the Bourne trilogy. He’s the missing ingredient in Jason Bourne, a reteaming of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass nine years after their last outing. His presence is sorely missed.
It’s easier to notice this absence when everything else is the same. The fourth installment of the Jason Bourne series might have served as an ideal point to transition into a slightly different kind of spy story, but here Greengrass reveals Bourne to be as married to formula as the James Bond franchise: A control room full of aging character actors and frantically typing extras, a secret from his past that reveals another layer of his identity, a car chase, a cold and seemingly unstoppable assassin on his heels.
When last we left Bourne he had disappeared after finally bringing down Treadstone, the secret government project behind his conversion into a heartless assassin. Almost a decade later he’s still reeling from guilt and the psychological effects of his spotty amnesia. To blow off steam he has joined a fight club (no, really!) where he allows guys he could pulverize to lay him low with some cathartic punches.
He’s drawn out of his mopey masochism by Nicky (Julia Stiles), his former insider at the agency. Her recent hack of a government database reveals yet another facet of Bourne’s past, one that’s connected to a future threat.
Meanwhile, steely intelligence agent Heather (Alicia Vikander) butts heads with CIA director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) when her plan to bring Bourne back into the fold clashes with his preferred option of killing him. Dewey dispatches this movie’s version of “the Assset” (Vincent Cassel), an assassin with a previous connection to Bourne.
“Don’t make this personal,” Dewey growls to the Assset over the phone. Hey, Mister CIA director, maybe if you don’t want a mission to be made personal, you shouldn’t hire the guy who was tortured for two years after Bourne blew his cover.
This is but one of the many egregious lapses of logic littered about the poorly conceived script. Silliness is excusable in an action movie, but not one that flatters itself as a thinking person’s thriller. Turns out Gillroy was the one who could lend an air of plausibility to the techno-hokum that was so often the crux of the drama. Here Vikander’s Heather, tracking Bourne, will casually make ridiculous requests like “isolate all social-media posts from this location,” or she’ll scan several screens of shaky security footage until an impossibly blurred glimpse of blonde hair is revealed— via that “image enhancement” beloved by slipshod spy movies— to be the one person she was looking for in a crowd of thousands.
It’s not that the Bourne movies need to be realistic, but they at least need to have some internal consistency. The control room’s powers are arbitrary and variable— they can instantaneously correlate and analyze every post to every social-media platform in a specific geographical area, but they can’t monitor or block regular cellphone calls from conspirators inside their own facility. The result is that none of Bourne’s actions, with the exception of the kicking and punching, have any kind of gravity.
The punching and kicking is still good, if that’s what you’re here for. Damon’s a solid action star, and Greengrass can still choreograph a brutal fistfight or a thrilling chase. He’s somehow able to conjure coherence out of quick cuts from jostling handheld cameras, making the fight scenes visceral but never disorienting.
He’s less apt with the coherence of the story, cowritten with Christopher Rouse, which also adds in a time-consuming subplot about a Mark Zuckerberg-esque billionaire (Riz Ahmed) that aims to give the movie relevance but just ends up wasting time. Except that it does put the excellent Ahmed onscreen more— the Nightcrawler costar and primary character on HBO’s The Night Of is a fascinating, fantastic presence. The great character actor Bill Camp makes a welcome appearance as well.
To enjoy Jason Bourne, you’ll have to stop to enjoy those supporting performances, tune in for the handful of crackerjack action sequences, and be patient through the rest. It’s too often a plodding, perfunctory movie that, like its hero, can’t seem to get itself unstuck from the past.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.