After nine years, Matt Damon returns to his signature role. The results are…well, they’re okay enough.
Why would he come back now?
I’m not an actor, but there is one role I’ve always wanted to play. It’s not Han Solo, or James Bond, or Aragorn. He often has just one line. It’s the guy whose part is to stand still, in a room lit only by computer screens, and gasp when a single, recognizable face appears: “My God…that’s Jason Bourne.”
It happens every time, and it’s always thrilling (if darkly comic), because of how loaded that realization is. Here we go again, it means. Time for Matt Damon to punch someone with a toaster. Time to make the CIA look like morons. Time to get motion sickness from the camerawork.
I love the Jason Bourne movies despite, or perhaps because of, that repetition. It’s just as valid as the Bond or Mission: Impossible formula, isn’t it? There’s always a new extra-legal black ops program to expose; there’s always another crusty CIA director to depose (this time it’s Tommy Lee Jones as “Dewey,” and he’s so natural I’m not convinced he doesn’t actually believe the stuff in his monologues*). There’s always an idealistic Bourne Girl to lend him aid. There are always corners to wait around and snipers to foil and cars to crash. And, when it’s over, there’s always Moby. Always, always Moby.
*Jones follows in the footsteps of Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn, and if that doesn’t sound like the world’s worst dinner party, I don’t know what does.
But at the same time, what makes Bourne special is that the series has always aimed for a pulpier intellectualism. These films are a product of their time, in how the original trilogy commented on War on Terror policies like rendition, civilian targeting, and all-around international meddling. Now almost a decade has gone by (and no, I’m not going to talk about the Jeremy Renner-led stopgap The Bourne Legacy, because Jason Bourne doesn’t), and we’re nearing the end of a different presidency. At this point in Jason’s life, he’s spent considerably more time on the run from his former handlers than he ever spent working for them. If Damon and director Paul Greengrass — the king of the white-knuckle docudrama — are going to bring our (now) grey-haired assassin back out of the shadows, spoiling the poetic ending of The Bourne Ultimatum, they better have a good reason. They better have something new to say.
And do they? Well…sort of. This time the word is “surveillance,” as we see an infinitely more powerful CIA cyber team, led by an ambitious Alicia Vikander — cash that Oscar money! — pull up hundreds of CCTV cameras and satellite feeds with a stroke, co-opt cell phones thousands of miles away, and do more watching of Bourne than he can possibly do of them. And he’s not prepared to deal with this new world — in fact, he’s only in this story at all because Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has joined some kind of Icelandic F Society hacker group, has uncovered yet another secret from Bourne’s past. But he already remembers everything, he protests — this plot is no longer driven by his amnesia! Too bad, she replies; he can’t remember what he never actually knew. And thus, the series continues apace. The mysteries are now external, not internal. But like many taciturn action heroes, the more we learn about Bourne, the less interesting he becomes.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been revisiting that original trilogy, and I was struck by two thoughts: first, HOLY CRAP does Matt Damon looks like a baby in The Bourne Identity. That was jarring. Second, though, as much as these films reinvented action filmmaking for a generation, winning critical hosannas and even a few awards in the process, I think they’re still underrated for their elegant simplicity. In the hands of Paul Greengrass, these stories are stripped down to their barest essence. Damon himself has had fewer and fewer lines of dialogue in each film. Jason Bourne only gives him a couple dozen. Lest you’re still unsure of his priorities, Greengrass’s co-writer this go-round isn’t longtime hand Tony Gilroy, but his editor, Christopher Rouse. It is Rouse’s first writing credit.
Staged with Greengrass’s signature immediacy, in real locations with sometimes hundreds of oblivious extras (the opening riot sequence in Greece reminded me of The Battle of Algiers, if I can be so bold), the action unfolds like a silent film. For all the recent criticism of Bourne’s (Oscar-winning!) style, this is — make no mistake — really, really hard to do well. The cutting here takes on an impressionistic brutality. You feel the motion on screen in a way that is almost more effective than truly being able to see it, like we’ve gone so far along the spectrum of Realism that we’ve ended up all the way around at Malick-ian Formalism. On methamphetamines.
Free from Gilroy’s more expository impulses, Greengrass sacrifices character at the alter of momentum, trusting in his technical acumen and his cast to make up the difference. For the most part, with top-shelf players like Jones and Vikander, it works. Vincent Cassel also features as the appropriately (or lazily)-named “Asset,” who has his own tangled history with Bourne, but it’s a tragically blown opportunity for reasons revealed in the third act. Even more aimless is the inclusion of The Night Of‘s** Riz Ahmed as a Zuckerberg-ish social media titan, present solely to serve as a soapbox for privacy advocates (a worthy cause, but not this clumsily) and a mechanism for getting all the characters in Las Vegas at the same time.
**Ahmed’s co-star, Bill Camp, is here too. Add in Midnight Special and Camp is having a character actor’s dream year.
Damon plays Bourne as exhausted, almost defeated. He does what he does because he has to, because he’s the rook that can only move in straight lines. Tellingly, as merry chases ensue along the streets of Athens, London, and Las Vegas, he goes out of his way to avoid the demolition-derby collateral damage that darkened previous films — instead, watching in horror as his counterpart plows through a row of cars like the climax of a Mythbusters episode. Whatever he did all those years ago, and whatever the spiraling consequences, the haunted and hunted Bourne must retain the moral high ground — and the losers are those misguided agency souls who have the audacity to follow orders unquestioned. This cynicism towards authority was compelling a decade ago, but in 2016, do we need any more? Do we even still need Bourne? I’m not so sure, but I admit I do like having him around. Sound and fury, signifying… something. Cue the Moby.