When The Bourne Ultimatum was released in 2007, star Matt Damon felt that the story of his amnesiac-assassin protagonist had been told. “The story of this guy’s search for his identity is over” he said, before stating that only a reconfiguration of the character at some future point could persuade him to return. So to 2016 and Jason Bourne, the fourth instalment in this particular hero’s saga (excluding spin-off sequel The Bourne Legacy), in which things have slightly changed, but not all that much. The popular killing-machine must go on another covert and pulse-raising search for another missing piece of his psychological jigsaw.
The previous trilogy of films saw Bourne trying to reconstruct his shattered memory, struggling with his own identity in a post-9/11 landscape in which America was wrestling with similar problems. He was also a reassurance and fantasy, a highly-skilled individual who could glance at his surroundings and understand the threats he faced and was able to defeat them with a rolled up magazine or a pen. In The Bourne Identity, the character was updated from the Cold War spy he had been in Robert Ludlum’s novels, by Ultimatum the nods to the political milieu – threats of rendition, black hoods, torture – were explicit. Still, the gripping ambiguity at the heart of the Bourne films was the character’s own uncertainty about who he was, his own obscured morality and his position as the films’ most tangible threat to national security.
He’s still troubled by the same doubts in Jason Bourne
, though they’re fed by the government high-ups who once again want him taken off the board. More important in Paul Greengrass’ third entry is a hunt for new – and, most vitally – external information about Bourne’s past and his induction into the program that took his identity and made him a killer. Familiar blurry flashbacks still plague him, and the considerably older Damon now convinces more than ever of their wearing and haunting effect, but they offer a key to something he didn’t know previously. Analogous to this is the external threat faced by the world at large in the form of the new technological evolution from the Bourne-esque black ops past; a digital surveillance state. The allusions are there from the off, but it’s not just off-handed references (“This could be worse than Snowdon.”); the abrasive point of contact between populace and government are woven into the fabric of what is, narratively speaking, probably the weakest screenplay Greengrass or Damon have worked with in the series.
A lengthy set piece in Athens is the film’s crowning achievement; it combines all of the key ingredients of typical Bourne action, relishing the hostile environment as it races through smoke-filled streets with Greengrass’ trademark velocity and bristling, shaky energy. That it is set amidst anti-government riots provides both the convenient surrounding chaos of action cinema and neat political shorthand. This is played out further in the primary plot involving insidious surveillance through social media, reframing the question about the new lengths that governments will go to and reloading the internal wrangling of agents and officials played by Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones. Riz Ahmed’s Zuckerberg-riffing tech entrepreneur is now as vital an asset as Vincent Cassell’s steely old-school wet worker.
The political commentary feels far more explicitly pointed and widely integral than in previous incarnations which adds a bold new dynamic where perhaps the same re-inventive verve is lacking in the film’s formulaic story. Fortunately, Greengrass and Damon are so in command of this material it’s rarely too much of a concern. Even when little of substance seems to be happening, the narrative feels propulsive. Even when action sequences seem generic and overblown – Vegas car chase, we’re looking at you – Greengrass and his team imbue them with such kinetic force and crunching intensity that they remain authentic and electrifying. Much like Bourne himself, Greengrass, Damon and co. so excel at this sort of thing that they execute with irresistible efficiency, regardless of what they have to work with.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson