If there’s a worse big-budget action movie screenplay than Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne, I haven’t seen it. That’s not to say that the movie is an out and out stinker, but it comes really close, and for me, it clocks in as the worst of the series.
It’s hard to believe that the Bourne franchise is now 16 years old, and that it’s been 9 years since the last Damon movie, The Bourne Ultimatum – in part, I think, because the first three were all released in a 6 year time span. That’s a pretty aggressive schedule for a big name series with a big name actor like Damon – the average between franchise installments is around 3 years. YA franchises like Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent are the exceptions for some reason – I suspect because of the ages of the main actors and how relatable they still need to feel to the teens who read the books. In the 9 years since Damon’s last Bourne movie, he’s aged noticeably, but hasn’t been off the screen in any of them. For fans of the franchise, seeing Damon step back into the role would be much like putting one’s feet into some comfy shoes. In his previous outings, Damon’s likeability factor was used to good effect – not only is he a wildly capable action hero, Jason Bourne is a tortured, angsty action hero, not only that, he’s out to right the wrongs of the past by going directly against high profile government figures. In this day and age where most people genuinely believe they’re simply pawns in a rich man’s game, Bourne hits back against the oppressors, the controllers. And he’s not just fighting an abstract war, these guys fucked him over too, just like they’re doing the same to us. Jason Bourne – specifically Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne – is the guy fighting for us.
Credited with ushering in a new era in action movies, The Bourne Identity was a fresh take on the genre. I remember feeling that way, at least. Every few years, a movie comes along in that genre and redefines it. First Blood, Commando, Die Hard, Terminator 2, The Matrix – all movies that were game-changers for the action movie genre for one reason or another. The Bourne Identity was a further step in the evolutionary chain, pulling back from the sci-fi theatrical choreography of The Matrix, and bringing things back down to Earth with a thud. The hand-to-hand combat choreography in these movies is thudding realistic – shot tight, and brutally violent, the scenes are probably what elevated the Bourne franchise more than any other element, and that cinematic DNA can be seen in many other movies – most obviously in the post-Bourne Daniel Craig James Bond movies, and in the second and third installments of Marvel’s Captain America franchise.
In the last Bourne movie, the studio attempted to reboot the franchise with Jeremy Renner as a different agent from the same program that created and trained Jason Bourne. This movie was a critical and commercial flop. Renner has done some good work, but he’s not a A lister, and never will be. The Bourne Legacy was a mostly forgettable action/espionage movie that mostly suffers from the lack of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass’s “shakycam” style of shooting – Renner isn’t bad in it, but he just lacks the intangibles that more successful actors seem to possess.
Cue the return of Matt Damon to the role in Jason Bourne, the franchise’s fifth, and his fourth, and returning director Greengrass. Crucially, however, Tony Gilroy – cowriter of the previous four movies – does not return, and to me, this is why the movie is of significantly lower quality. In a nutshell, Greengrass’s screenplay is a true example of hackwork, and almost nothing about it works at all.
It’s a disaster from start to finish, the first act alone contains an extended scene set in Greece that consists of Bourne and friendly operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) being chased through Athens during a riot guided by Langley operatives from various satellite and CCTV feeds in scenes of comic omnipotence. Those elements are just plain lazy, but when matched up with stupid writing, it’s a one-two punch the movie never recovers from, In act one alone, not only do Parsons and Bourne seem to forget the wide reach and sophistication of the CIA’s godlike surveillance capabilities by agreeing to meet each other in disguise, or covered up (Parson’s retains her flowing golden locks, Bourne never thinks once to camouflage himself by wearing a hat, hoodie or face covering like, y’know, all the rioters around him), but when the foot chase becomes vehicular, the teeming rioters who are everywhere conveniently keep the narrow streets clear so that Bourne and his pursuer can speed through them, under no danger whatsoever of hitting anyone. It’s this lack of internal logic that dooms the screenplay. That hat that Bourne never wore in Athens? He decides to wear one in Vegas. Not because Bourne wanted to get caught in Athens, or because he suddenly got dumb – no, it was just because Greengrass’s script is so bad that Bourne had to become that stupid and careless in order to service the plot. The movie is laced with these plot contrivances. In one climactic scene, Bourne and his quarry enter an underground storm drain in Las Vegas, minutes apart, and presumably with no prior knowledge of the layout of the place, yet not only does Bourne catch up with the guy easily, he’s somehow able to plow into him from a different tunnel.
The laziness of the plot is further emphasized by the fact that even though the franchise should be celebrating the return of Jason Bourne to the franchise, the plot is every bit a copy of the least interesting plot points of previous movie. CIA wants Bourne dead? Check. More parts of Bourne’s mysterious past revealed as part of a conspiracy against him personally, check? Many scenes of anonymous techies directing the actions of field agents from their desks hundreds and thousands of miles away? Check! Attractive female agent (Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander receives that baton from Stiles) decides to turn against her bosses and help Bourne? Check. Climactic confrontation between Bourne and old CIA director type? Check.
The worst thing about Jason Bourne is the screenplay, but when I say “worst”, that adjective is really big here. Movies can survive mediocre stories, but not overplotted, repetitive nonsense like this. In the end, it’s the one villain that even Jason Bourne cannot defeat.