I KNOW his name, but I don’t know much about him. Having never seen the preceding entries in the espionage saga, Jason Bourne was something of an unknown entity to me. By the end of his eponymous film, I probably know even less. Jason Bourne doesn’t so much expand upon its world and inhabitants as it does reiterate them. For a newcomer to the series, it’s an occasionally bewildering experience that’s slow to start, relying on sneaking intrigue to build the atmosphere, making us wait for answers that don’t especially prove to be worth our patience.
It’s typical spy fiction, weaving a surveillance-culture narrative through globe-trotting locales and our perennially confused protagonist (a returning Matt Damon) looking dourly at people through binoculars. Joining him this time are CIA career woman Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), the latter of whom is perfectly content to sit around in the office scowling. In the middle of the Bourne-related turmoil, there’s a Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg surrogate with Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) and Deep Dream, through which Dewey plans to create a mass surveillance network, alongside the remade Treadstone program from the previous films.
These two plot strands – Bourne’s identity (ha!) conflicts and the Deep Dream surveillance initiative – don’t blend with much elegance; the film is clearly more pre-occupied with Bourne’s progression from stone-faced badass to slightly baffled, stone-faced badass. Paul Greengrass’ direction treats the material clinically, in a business-as-usual sense, content to draw upon the existing Bourne mythos but never elaborating on it. There’s a strange distance to the film preventing us from fully engaging with it, and it’s largely because Jason Bourne feels like a footnote to its predecessors.
There are endless flashbacks and references to Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum, none of which I particularly understood or, ultimately, cared for. The most immediate and least egregious is Julia Stiles, returning as Nicky Parsons, a sort-of old flame of Bourne who drags him back into the murky espionage underworld, but the rest of the references only really serve to overburden the film. Though it serves to remind us of Bourne’s past demons – and vaguely clues up those not in the know – it relies too heavily on these callbacks, preventing us from truly engaging with the present Bourne’s actions.
Our introduction to Bourne this time around is in a subdued, bone-crunching, impossible-to-make-out fight sequence. This sets a precedent for the rest of the film – impeccable choreography, utterly ruined by shaky-cam bullshit. It’s initially visceral, the sickening thuds of fists slamming into hard flesh a bracing effect, but as the film winds on we slowly become desperate for visual coherence. It’s a huge relief whenever the film slows down to establish character and setting, especially when it’s the power struggles between Heather and Dewey, and we come to dread the inevitability of the action ramping up.
An elaborate car chase near the end is completely ruined by the insistence on shaky-cam, and while I understand that Greengrass and the Bourne films helped pioneer this approach in the action genre, its presence here nearly gave me motion sickness. There’s frenetic action, and then there’s the unwatchable blur that comprises most of this film’s action sequences. The editing in these moments is also scattershot, clinging to split-second cuts and disorienting angles. It’s meant to break us into the moment, but it only serves to alienate.
At least the performances are engaging. Damon’s transformation into an action hero might have been surprising in 2002, but he fits the role perfectly in 2016, bringing muscularity and depth to an otherwise ruthless killer. Vikander initially seems rather monotone, but once we realise it’s a front for her character’s ambition we become fascinated by her.
Tommy Lee Jones is Tommy Lee Jones, so that’s just fine, and Riz Ahmed juggles Aaron’s moral conflict and public personas with deft assurance. Elsewhere, Vincent Cassel is reliably enjoyable as the unnamed Asset, a cold-blooded agent with a personal grudge against Bourne. Their fistfight is undoubtedly the high point of the film, and it’s the only moment where the shaky cam feels appropriate and complementary.
But the real problem with Jason Bourne is how perfunctory and inconsequential it is. It’s a perfectly acceptable slice of espionage nonsense, veiled with the pretence of modern relevance, but it’s not a whole lot less ridiculous than any other chock-a-block spy thriller. It feels more like an epilogue to the original trilogy (and Legacy, I guess) than a standalone entry, and its identity is wrapped up too closely with theirs.
Where Bourne may once have been a refreshing alternative to Bond and other spy films, it’s now become very much the norm. It’s perfectly fine for what it is, but its grit and incoherence no longer seem as novel as they once were.