His reputation precedes him. The new ad-campaign tagline teased at our collective familiarity: “You know his name.” Who is Jason Bourne? It’s a question that has been the prevailing framework of the Matt Damon-starring series, from the opening moments of the first film, when an amnesiac young man with inexplicable combat prowess first washed up onto the deck of a fishing boat in Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, the 2002 adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel of the same name It has been the animating force through the labyrinthine journey from Liman’s espionage thriller through Paul Greengrass’ frenetic follow-up duology The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). It’s a quest he completes in the latter film, recovering the memory of his involvement in a CIA black ops project known as “Treadstone,” stripping him of his former identity as David Webb, and granting him the Bourne moniker, ostensibly a license to kill, replete with advanced combat and tactical skills.
But behind the brutal hand-to-hand combat sequences, the CIA operatives tracking his every move from behind glowing computer terminals, scrappy car chases, and that signature Moby end credit song, what’s present in each film is Bourne’s quest for an identity beyond that of a mindless government assassin.
In a way, the Bourne series has the distinction of being a proto-superhero franchise, predating the current cycle of Marvel and DC’s respective Cinematic Universes and preceded only by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). Bourne’s origin story even shares similarities with that of X-Men’s Wolverine, both being fighters dealing with the trauma of government organizations exploiting their unique abilities—and both at the hands of character actor Brian Cox. The release of The Bourne Identity places the Bourne franchise firmly in the pantheon of post-9/11 paranoia, as played out as the cliché may now be. It’s a gritty reimagining of the stylish superspy, whose gadget-laden pen has been swapped out (violently) for a simple ballpoint, wielded with deadly brutality by Damon’s Bourne.
Watching Jason Bourne be unleashed on unsuspecting adversaries may appeal to our lizard-brain pleasure centers, but it’s the overarching issues that arose out of this particular milieu that made the Damon-starring Bourne trilogy so compelling—even the rocky 2012 spinoff The Bourne Legacy took on drone-warfare in a way that was of-a-piece with the rest of the series. It is conspicuously of its time, exploring the human cost of fighting the newly-minted war on terror.
But what made the timeliness of the original cycle so vital is exactly what makes Greengrass’ and Damon’s return to the franchise in Jason Bourne so utterly useless. Just as Jason Bourne has no purpose, Jason Bourne has no purpose. As the film’s prologue reminds us, flashing back to nearly a decade prior to the climactic moments of Ultimatum, Bourne’s quest is finished: he has recovered his memory, tracked down the nefarious doctor who deprogrammed him into a superhuman killing machine, and exposed the controversial Treadstone and its adjacent black ops programs to the world. But just when he thought he was out, Bourne is pulled back in: there’s another secret program and another buried memory to uncover.
But Bourne’s plight is strangely tangential to the boring government-funded Silicon Valley conspiracy grafted onto the plot. Where the first Bourne film was born out of the ashes of September 11th, Jason Bourne exists in a post-Snowden world (the S-word is invoked several times throughout the film’s 2-hour runtime, like the boogeyman of cybercrime). As ever, the CIA is hot on Bourne’s tail, this time with a high-tech team headed by Alicia Vikander’s stony-faced computer specialist, who spews a word salad of hacker jargon (“Malware!” “Backdoor access!” “Enhance!”) all while looking like she’d rather be in another movie. Also phoning it in is Tommy Lee Jones as Vikander’s superior, cast here more for the gravitas of his craggy face than any apparent effort on his part.
Jason Bourne does not fit into this new world of cyber-surveillance. The city-to-city chase has given way to the computer interface, with close-ups of progress bars racing to finish downloading incriminating files before some unseen threat can stop them. Bourne’s physicality, his adherence to an analogue world (fighting with ballpoint pens, but also using them in a notebook) is out-of-step with online espionage. Greengrass’ similarly physical style, the shaky-cam close-up, is ill-suited for capturing static computer screens. When the requisite Bourne car chase finally happens, it feels like something of a bygone era. Lacking any of the inventive ideas or images of the franchise’s previous car sequences, Jason Bourne simply goes through the motions of wanton vehicular carnage. Clearly, Jason Bourne (and Jason Bourne) is tired.