“I’m just trying to do the right thing here,” Jason Bourne told Franka Potente’s Marie Kreutz 14 years ago in The Bourne Identity.
“Nobody does the right thing” was her doubtful response.
Those two lines perfectly encapsulated the moral and existential tension not only of that film but of the Bourne trilogy as a whole: the fundamental untenability of the hero’s position, the extremely unforgiving nature of his world, his quixotic determination to take moral responsibility for a life that he couldn’t remember — a life as a person who seemed not to have placed a high priority on moral responsibility.
It was impossible not to empathize with Bourne’s plight; he could be anyone. But of course he wasn’t just anyone, because very dangerous people were trying hard to kill him, and it turned out that he was very good at staying alive.
Over the three films that followed, Bourne — or David Webb, as he eventually learned was his real name — continued to try to figure out what “the right thing” meant for an amnesiac former CIA black-ops assassin. Among other things, this included tracking down and apologizing to a surviving family member of two of his earliest victims and exposing the illegal actions of his former bosses.
Webb didn’t seem to have the temperament of an assassin; perhaps he lost more than just memories in the trauma that left him floating in the Mediterranean with a pair of bullets in his back. Perhaps he gained something too. The brain is a tricky thing. Who was the real David Webb, the man who fell into the Mediterranean or the man who was fished out?
The newness of his persona heightened the baptismal dimension of the immersion imagery that ran through the films. I don’t know which Christian writer was the first to use the phrase “Bourne again,” but I bet it was early on.
Jettisoning Robert Ludlum–style titles, the fifth film is called simply Jason Bourne, as if to reassure us that, unlike the last installment — The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner — Matt Damon is definitely in this film. When we catch up with Webb, we find him well off the grid, earning a living via brutal street fighting. Is this what trying to do the right thing has come to?
There would seem to be no motivation for Webb to come back into the open. Even the entirely expected news that the black-ops work of Treadstone and Blackbriar continues under a new name, Ironhand, is hardly enough. But Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), Webb’s former Treadstone contact turned ally against the system, shows up with new information about his past — information with potentially redemptive meaning regarding Webb’s past life.
This is not a bad idea. It’s just two films too late. The thing is, however it happened, Webb became a man — as an early flashback reminds us — who could point a gun at the head of a hooded, bound prisoner about whom he knew essentially nothing and pull the trigger. I’m glad he wants to follow a different path now, but the issues of the character we meet here are no longer inherently involving to me.
It isn’t just the passage of time. The world has changed since 2007, and not only in the ways the filmmakers are self-consciously trying to engage: concerns about cyber-security, online privacy, government spying and the pressure on tech companies to give the government whatever information or access it wants.
These are valid concerns and could make for a compelling thriller, but they’re not a good match for the Bourne aesthetic, at least as it hashes out here. (After typing the Ludlumesque phrase “the Bourne aesthetic,” I just had to Google it; unsurprisingly there are hundreds of matches.)
Jason Bourne pits Tommy Lee Jones as an ossified new CIA director and Alicia Vikander as a coolly ambitious young agent against Bourne in a plot that combines lots of chasing and people getting shot — often in returning director Paul Greengrass’s trademark shaky-cam style — with lots of intent gazing at computer screens. This is not the most felicitous pairing in the world.
It doesn’t help that neither the dialogue nor the tech feel like the filmmakers have a real understanding of their material, always until now a series strength. Does anyone really think that if an agent were modifying computer files in the process of being stolen by hackers, deliberately infecting them with malware designed to signal the agent when the stolen files were opened, a confirmation alert would pop up on the agent’s screen with a message like “Malware attached”?
Jones brings absolutely nothing new as this installment’s Chris Cooper/Brian Cox evil white guy figure. Vikander is far more robotic than as an actual robot in her terrific Ex Machina performance. I understand the issues of the world she’s negotiating, but right up to the end she’s such an enigma that I’m still not sure how to take a crucial line of dialogue on which her final exchange with Webb turns.
There’s a bigger problem. The world has gotten more violent in the last decade, and brutal images of execution killings and large-scale violence in crowded public settings have become numbingly familiar, even commonplace.
Part of me shut down to the film with that first flashback of the execution of the hooded prisoner; subsequent casual kill shots by a character known only as “the asset” (Vincent Cassel) pushed me further away, even though he is one of the “bad guys” (to whatever extent that that term means anything in Bourne’s cynical world).
A climactic chase scene involves a bad guy roaring down the Las Vegas Strip in a five-ton armored SWAT van, plowing with abandon through whatever is in his way and leaving a wake of destruction.
Coincidentally, two weeks before the sequence was scheduled to be shot, a woman in Las Vegas went on a vehicular rampage along the same stretch of road, striking dozens of people and killing at least one. The convergence rattled the filmmakers; there was talk of scrapping the sequence, but ultimately they went ahead with it.
Eerily, Jason Bourne arrives two weeks after the horrific Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, in which the attacker drove a heavy cargo truck into a large crowd of revelers, killing 84 and injuring hundreds. I know the second coincidence isn’t the filmmakers’ fault, but it doesn’t make the set piece any more thrilling to me.
What definitely is the filmmakers fault is the convergence with my least favorite moment from an earlier Bourne film, a ruthless first-act turning point shamelessly recycled here. The first time around it was a cruel but justifiable move; now it’s become a trope, which makes me downright angry. If the filmmakers could do no better by these characters than this, they shouldn’t have brought them back.
You know his name. David Webb. You did know that was his name, right?
With The Bourne Ultimatum the eponymous hero has accomplished something rare indeed: Jason Bourne has gone the distance for three straight films. With The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum seals the achievement of a rare action franchise for thinking adults, combining gripping entertainment with an undercurrent of moral seriousness.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has come a long way since he was fished out of the ocean with a pair of bullet holes in his body and even bigger holes in his memory. His past is still a blank, mostly, but he’s finally fully in command of his devastating training and skills as a CIA black-ops agent. These days, when he kicks into high gear, it’s by design, not reflex.
Like the memory-impaired antihero of Memento, the protagonist of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (and a trilogy of Robert Ludlum novels before that) has no choice but to trust himself even though he can’t be sure he’s a trustworthy individual. Perhaps his honorable aspirations themselves are a good sign. Certainly the amazing abilities and instincts that suddenly surface when needed are clues to who and what he is. Jason may not know much, but he’s pretty sure he’s something out of the ordinary.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.