It’s been nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum, nine years for Matt Damon to grow older and for the issues the original Bourne trilogy dealt with to die down a bit. In the meantime, Jeremy Renner played a Bourne-like Treadstone-project character in The Bourne Legacy, and is expected to return for another. So one might argue that the Jason Bourne character is played out. And Jason Bourne didn’t get great reviews–57% on Rottentomatoes.com, not great, not awful. It’s a simpler, more straightforward movie than the previous ones. I liked it. I liked its simplicity; I liked the stripped-down simplicity. It felt iconic, like an exercise in Ur-Bourne essentialism. It takes the Bourne template and just follows that, with nothing extraneous or unneeded. And the focus now is on a few simple moral choices. Here’s Jason Bourne. He knows who he is and what he can do, and he also can now remember what he’s done in the past. What does he do about it?
As the movie begins, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a deeply troubled, haunted man, making a living as a bare-knuckle prize-fighter in the outer reaches of civilization. His old friend, Nicky Parsons (once his CIA handler), is on the run, in Iceland, hacking into government files and releasing them into the web, working with a Julian Assange-type character named Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer). Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), CEO of a social media company (based on Mark Zuckerberg, maybe?) meets with Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), head of the CIA, who wants him to allow government access to everyone’s social media accounts, as part of the war on terror. Which Kalloor refuses. Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), meanwhile, is a high official at the CIA, and is trying to stop a hack by Nicky. And Asset (Vincent Kassel), a Treadstone assassin, is waiting for the call to kill Jason Bourne.
Spoiler alert: Nicky’s hack leads her to a file from the early days of Treadstone, in which she learns that Bourne’s father was the guy who came up with Treadstone in the first place. Treadstone, you’ll recall, is an US government program in which a few elite assassins are genetically modified, become stronger/faster/quicker/tougher. Only Bourne’s Dad had second thoughts, and met with Jason to express those qualms. But before he could talk, he was killed, by Asset, on Dewey’s orders. Nicky meets with Jason in Athens, where they meet in the middle of an anti-government riot. As Asset tries to kill them, Jason and Nicky try to escape in the first of the movie’s two spectacular chase scenes. Asset manages to kill Nicky, but she gets the file to Bourne first.
Bourne, you’ll recall, suffered from amnesia in the previous movies. He has recovered–he now remembers everything, including multiple assassinations he carried out under government orders. He’s haunted by those memories. He’s a deeply troubled man. Nicky’s files send him in a direction; he wants to know what really happened, why his father died and who killed him, who knew what and when. He doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do about any of it.
And that’s why I found this film so compelling. The other characters all have quite specific ideas for what they thing Jason Bourne should do. Nicky wants him to join her crusade; to expose Treadstone, to go all Julian Assange/Dassault. He doesn’t want to; he doesn’t trust Dassault. Director Dewey has an agenda too; Jason Bourne is a loose end, and so he wants him killed. That’s also Asset’s agenda. Heather, though, doesn’t want that; she thinks Jason Bourne is still ‘a patriot’ and can be rehabilitated as a government assassin. And Kallour has an agenda too; to save his company, even it means destroying it. Oh, and Dewey wants Kallour dead too. He wants all social media to be accessible to the government, to aid in the war on terror. And he’s made a deal with Kallour’s second-in-command. And he figures he’ll kill Heather too. She’s just too much of a loose cannon.
So there are all these characters with very strong objectives, working at cross-purposes. Jason Bourne, meanwhile, acting on instinct, is trying to save human life, basically. He wants to stop Asset, because Asset is a killer. He wants to save Heather, who he doesn’t trust at all, because her life is in danger. And he wants to meet with Dewey, talk to him, get the answers to his questions. But he might have to kill Dewey, to survive.
What’s fascinating about this is the contrast between Asset and Jason Bourne. Asset just kills anyone who gets in his way. Cops, security guards, innocent bystanders? If they’re in his way, he’s going to shoot them. And I realized; he’s the ultimate product of Treadstone. He’s a Jason Bourne. Asset’s who Heather wants him, Bourne, to become. Absolutely cold-blooded. Meanwhile, Jason Bourne has inconvenient people in his way too, but he can’t bring himself to kill them. (He does knock them out, but this is movie-land, where concussions don’t come with serious health consequences).
I loved the straightforward simplicity of it. All these agendas, and Bourne in the middle of them all, trying to clear his head.
Your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how well you do with hand-held camera work. My wife can’t stand shaky-cam, and didn’t like this movie as much as I did. I don’t mind shaky-cam, and thought the film’s two chase scenes quite spectacular. Shaky-cam is a distinguishing characteristic of Paul Greengrass’ directing style. It’s a style I enjoy. You may not.
Still, this is an excellent movie, a much better movie than what we might expect from action movies. A lot of it is the acting. Matt Damon has never been better. Veteran French tough guy Cassel is a wonderful foil as Asset. Tommy Lee Jones’ wonderful face has never been cragier, Riz Ahmed (so terrific in HBO’s The Night Of), is self-assured but vulnerable as the CEO, and Julia Stiles is outstanding, in much too short a role. And Alicia Vikander is a completely untrustworthy snake. We always know she has some kind of agenda going on, but we’re never quite sure how to read her, until the movie’s very last moments. Good movie, exciting and smart. So glad Bourne’s back.