JASON BOURNE

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JASON BOURNE  * *

Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Julia Stiles, Vincent Cassel and Tommy Lee Jones. Screenplay by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse. Directed by Paul Greengrass.

“They should have left him alone,” warned the poster for 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, Paul Greengrass’ crackerjack sequel to director Doug Liman’s 2002 amnesiac adventure — a sleeper hit that saved Matt Damon’s then-floundering career and revolutionized contemporary action filmmaking in ways perhaps not entirely for the best. The stripped-down, jittery immediacy of the Bourne movies and their unsubtle fear and loathing of the George W. Bush administration made other espionage pictures seem so suddenly, hopelessly square that even James Bond quickly rebooted to follow suit. Poor Ben Affleck played Jack Ryan in a Tom Clancy adaptation that opened two weeks before The Bourne Identity but felt like it was from a previous century.

Greengrass and Damon famously (and in the press quite contentiously) scrapped writer Tony Gilroy’s screenplay for 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum and for all intents and purposes made up a classic of the genre as they went along. I watched it again last week and the thing is still pretty much a miracle of a movie – an almost non-stop 115-minute chase sequence with some beautiful character beats that solves the series’ central mysteries and firmly closes the book on this particular story. So complete was the resolution that at the time Damon joked any sequel should be called The Bourne Redundancy.

But franchises gotta franchise, so in 2012 snubbed screenwriter Gilroy took the helm for The Bourne Legacy, an ungainly spin-off with bizarre science-fiction elements (and Jeremy Renner) that rather spitefully reverses Ultimatum‘s triumphant ending by letting David Strathairn’s snarling CIA scoundrel off the hook and sending Joan Allen’s heroic whistleblower to prison for his crimes. The whole endeavor is a weird middle finger to the previous picture, which takes place concurrently and scenes from it are seen on security monitors throughout. Not a great idea for a bad movie to have a good one blaring on TVs in the background.

For reasons I can only assume involve giant piles of money, Damon and Greengrass have returned at this late date to at long last make their own Bourne Redundancy, and I’m still a bit taken aback by how lousy it is. The cheekily-titled Jason Bourne (“we promise it’s not the other guy this time”) lumbers where the original films were fleet. It repeats scenes and set-pieces in pale imitations, joylessly going through the motions while everyone onscreen looks vaguely disinterested. These films were never exactly a barrel of laughs but there was always a wit and some ingenuity to the super-spy’s improvisations.

Now Bourne’s just a blunt instrument, punching and pounding while Damon glowers and mutters a scant handful of lines. The action sequences are impressive yet underwhelming, brute-force logistical feats that feel disconnected from the humans performing them. The pacing is logy and missing the series’ signature propulsion. Such an enormous amount of screen time is devoted to him sullenly trudging from place to place, I swear not even Gerry had this many shots of Matt Damon walking.

A not unamusing Tommy Lee Jones is on autopilot as this installment’s great character actor who paces around a situation room, barking orders and watching the action unfold on screens. It Girl Alicia Vikander plays his possibly duplicitous assistant and is somehow even more robotic than she was in Ex Machina. The series’ perennial bridesmaid Julia Stiles comes back briefly to lure Bourne out of hiding, where he’s quite absurdly paying homage to Rambo III in bare-knuckle fight clubs on the Albanian border, knocking his opponents out with one punch while suffering conveniently-timed expositional flashbacks.

Stiles has joined up with some sort of Icelandic WikiLeaks collective and she’s just hacked the CIA, downloading a desktop icon helpfully labeled BLACK OPERATIONS FOLDER. It was at this moment I groaned and slumped downward in my seat, knowing full well that no movie in which the CIA has a BLACK OPERATIONS FOLDER can possibly be worthwhile and this was gonna be a long two hours. (Spoilers follow, if you’re sensitive about such things.)

It gets worse, because that BLACK OPERATIONS FOLDER contains all sorts of information about Bourne’s heretofore never-mentioned father (played in flashbacks by Body Double‘s Gregg Henry, sadly sans Indian costume) including the fact that he invented the dastardly Treadstone super-soldier program, but then freaked out and threatened to go public when The Agency tried to recruit his angelic, idealistic son.

So naturally Tommy Lee Jones had Bourne’s old man blown up and blamed it on Radical Islamic Terrorism, thus convincing the kid to enlist and go shoot some bad guys for God and country. Now, as luck would have it, the very CIA assassin (Vincent Cassel) who killed his father is also chasing Jason Bourne, conveniently looking for revenge because the events of Ultimatum somehow landed him in a Syrian torture pit for two years.

This is stupid, soap opera stuff and I still don’t understand (nor do I care) what any of it has to do with the subplot about a mega-popular social networking site secretly funded by the CIA to collect your personal information. What I’m angry about is that all this nonsense retroactively wipes out The Bourne Ultimatum‘s most devastating revelation: After three movies spent with the enormously likable Damon, we’d all kinda just assumed he’d been brainwashed and somehow turned into a killer against his will. But then instead we found out he volunteered; flashing back to the fresh-faced young cadet begging to become a steely-eyed murderer. The films were about a man looking for his past, only to discover he’d been a monster. Bourne’s journey was ultimately one of atonement, trying to right the wrongs of his forgotten former life.

The dopey plot machinations of the new film absolve him of that responsibility. Turns out he was a good kid who just got duped by the bad guy, that’s all. (To quote a different Matt Damon movie, “It’s not your fault.”) This makes the previous pictures feel smaller and less special. Like so many other tentpoles today, Jason Bourne is way too preoccupied with providing ponderous backstory and setting up yet another sequel, the sole character motivation being the most prevalent and tedious in our current cinema — revenge. Sure, Greengrass and his editor/co-screenwriter Christopher Rouse kick around a few buzzwords and empty slogans regarding patriotism and privacy, but in the end there’s nothing going on here beyond: “My name is David Webb. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

They really should have left him alone.

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