October 11, 2016

Stale Popcorn is Still Popcorn: Jason Bourne is Still Jason Bourne

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If George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road set the gold standard for a director returning to an old franchise and Steven Spielberg’s return to Indiana Jones with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an example of a flop, then Paul Greengrass’s effort for Jason Bourne lands squarely in the middle. The action is as exciting as ever and all the performances are engaging, but the movie’s title indicates just how little effort was put into making the latest installment of the Bourne franchise fresh and unique.

The film continues the original trilogy’s story of former CIA assassin Jason Bourne, once again played subtly but convincingly by Matt Damon. The details of the plot are more or less unimportant. Bourne is still on the run and he’s still trying to find out information about his past (and the sky’s still blue, by the way). New people are out to catch him, however, when CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) orders CIA cyber head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to organize the hunt for Bourne. The relationship between the two adds intrigue throughout, and Tommy Lee Jones is in peak disgruntled, old-age Tommy Lee Jones form.

It’s a relief to have Greengrass, the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, behind the camera once again after the disappointing, Matt Damon-less The Bourne Legacy from 2012. I love the first three Bourne films, and one of their greatest merits is Greengrass’s ability to make chaotic action sequences coherent despite lots of quick cutting. His talents are on display from the onset in Jason Bourne. After a few introductory scenes, we get a thrilling, nearly 15-minute chase through a violent riot in Athens with policemen and protesters flooding the streets. It is one of a number of kinetic, realistic sequences involving a fight or a chase amid big city mayhem.

Though the movie delivers on the action front, its story comes up short. Perhaps the fact that Greengrass co-wrote the screenplay with his film editor, Christopher Rouse (who is, incidentally, magnificent at his actual job), should have been a red flag. The new “secrets” that Bourne is after regarding his recruitment and his father’s role in the CIA’s Treadstone program are just not all that interesting. The film is also bogged down by a muddled side-plot involving the CEO of a social media company, whose data Dewey wishes to use as part of his new assassination programs. Other than a shallow, unnecessary debate on privacy rights, this storyline does nothing but disrupt a hallmark of the Bourne films: their total, undivided attention on the titular character. When I go to a Bourne movie, I want to watch Bourne.

Whereas the original trilogy was carried by the underlying momentum of Bourne working to uncover his identity after his amnesia, this film has no such drive. For a sequel nine years in the making, “Jason Bourne” is disappointedly detached from the rest of the franchise. Ultimatum was so successful at tying up loose ends and bringing the trilogy to a satisfying close that the writers needed a much stronger effort to justify the existence of a continuation to the story. Jason Bourne doesn’t raise the stakes, and it strips the series of its narrative progression that once elevated it above simply being a grimmer, gloomier version of Mission Impossible.

That being said, other than story, the movie still has everything you loved about the first three films: extended car chases, shaky-cam phone conversations, people in a control room looking at camera footage and talking about “assets,” and lots and lots of Jason Bourne inconspicuously walking through crowds of people. Sure, some of it feels old, but parts of it are as heart pounding as any action movie you’ll see this year. Jason Bourne may be stale popcorn, but it’s still popcorn.