What if I told you the government was watching exactly what you were doing right now? That they knew your exact location, your entire internet browsing history, what you have recently masturbated to and how many Pokemon you’ve caught? You’d likely just shrug your shoulders in acceptance and go back to your day to day lives- in the post-Bourne Ultimatum world, everybody largely assumes they are being watched by a shadowy government agency and has learnt to adapt to it.
When Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA’s wrong doings, it didn’t make many international headlines outside of broadsheet newspapers, simply because after director Paul Greengrass’ 2007 action sequel, everybody largely assumed this was the case anyway. Back then, this was a spy franchise ahead of the curve, predicting exactly the dark side of globalism that came to dominate international headlines in the intervening years.
Watching 2016 sequel/reboot Jason Bourne rehash these same old ideas about government surveillance nine years later, with no new insight, should really be a case of diminishing returns. After all, with the horrifying nature that world events have taken in recent months, banging the “government surveillance” drum yet again is the least of modern society’s problems. This is probably why the film seems to banish all aspects of realism to become a fully enjoyable popcorn blockbuster, closer to classic Bond in its love of ridiculous set pieces than any of the franchise efforts that came before.
Nine years after disappearing in New York, Jason “David Webb” Bourne (Matt Damon) is back on the CIA’s radar after a leak of internal documents far “bigger than Snowden” that includes important information about all the various super soldier programmes and Bourne’s own heritage. Bourne is not responsible for the leak, but is brought back into the fold as a major suspect anyway and finds himself subject to yet another man hunt by the new CIA director (Tommy Lee Jones) and a rookie agent out to prove what she’s worth (Alicia Vikander). Add in a subplot about the government’s role in monitoring social media and you’ll have a bingo in the big list of post 9/11 action thriller cliches- which the original trilogy wrote the book on.
The film frequently feels like a “Bourne greatest hits” package, due to how unwilling it is to incorporate any new ideas into the spy narrative. Many other viewers have found this tedious and detrimental to the original trilogy, claiming the franchise should have stayed dormant. In many ways, I agree- but when the end result is this enjoyable, directed to scenes of action silliness far beyond parody, I can’t complain.
It isn’t an insult to the franchise so much as a reminder why you loved these movies in the first place. Sure, this is the most “Hollywood” Bourne movie to date; but in the worst summer for blockbuster movies in recent memory, that is no bad thing. Greengrass is clearly still passionate about this character and the shadowy politics that surrounds him- and boy, is it good to see a studio tentpole actually directed with some passion.
This isn’t the best Bourne movie by quite a long margin, but it is the MOST Bourne movie. The shaky cam here is likely to reduce audiences across the globe into fits of hyperventilating nausea. Only during the Athens anti-austerity march did that become an issue for me, as there was a large five minute chunk of the film that became visually incomprehensible. I didn’t even realise Vincent Cassel was in the film until ten minutes after his first appearance, so unstable are the cameras here. You could say this Athens sequence is a concession to real life events, what with police riots, the theme of austerity and far-right Golden Dawn flags (the Greek Nazi party) being flown by protestors out of focus in the background. It is a crying shame that this is the only sequence that feels poorly directed, when you feel like crying out “for heaven’s sake Paul, hold the camera steady!”
Similarly, the set pieces aim to merely reimagine previous sequences from the previous instalments. The entire London sequence in the second act here, is beat-for-beat identical to the first act of Ultimatum, albeit with a different London location and slightly dissimilar set of surrounding circumstances. But it is no less thrilling; he may usually bring dark-hearted realism to proceedings, but here, Greengrass is going out of his way to give the audience what they want. His films may be well loved already, but Jason Bourne is his first bona fide crowd pleaser. At best, it is a loving tribute to the franchise. At worst, it is mere fan service that sticks to its guns instead of pushing itself in an artistically bold direction.
There are hints of an artistically bold direction that would help make this stand out from the proceeding films, that rather annoyingly, the film never follows through with. After the aforementioned London sequence, a CIA member briefly talks about a cover up that would blame the mass shootout on a lone acting Iraqi terrorist- it plays directly into the hands of 9/11 “truther” lunacy and feels deliciously subversive being included in a mainstream film as a result.
I don’t agree with that conspiracy, because it is utter nonsense, but I can’t deny I enjoyed seeing it alluded to in such a gigantic studio tentpole. Whereas every other blockbuster feels safe and designed not to offend, the Bourne version of crowd pleasing is holding the powers that be accountable in any way possible. It is the only anti-establishment movie franchise in existence- there is no wonder I love it so much.
Jason Bourne may be an unnecessary addition to the franchise, but it does give a large dose of the one thing we’ve been missing from blockbusters this summer: fun. It may be a disappointment to many fans due to the less intelligent narrative and repetitive nature, but in the dire summer season, an action packed disappointment is far better than any old disappointment.