After the critical and commercial success of The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), its star, Matt Damon, and its director, Paul Greengrass, declined to make a follow-up, feeling that they had taken the character of a psychogenic amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne as far as he could go. To be fair, the film felt like a fitting conclusion but Hollywood studios are not known to stop cranking out installments for lucrative franchises and Universal Pictures gave the series’ screenwriter Tony Gilroy a shot at writing and directing his own entry in the series. The Bourne Legacy (2012) saw Jeremy Renner take over the lead as another CIA operative on the run from the United States government when his black ops program is shutdown. The film performed well enough but the general feeling was that most people wanted to see Damon reprise his role as Bourne.
Enough time had finally passed for Damon and Greengrass and they came up with a new Jason Bourne story, inspired partly by the effects of Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information from the National Security Agency on espionage and surveillance all over the world. How would it affect the Bourne world and bring him out of self-imposed exile? Not surprisingly, the unimaginatively titled Jason Bourne (2016) was a financial success as audiences were more than happy to see the actor reprise one of his most beloved characters while leaving many critics underwhelmed.
Still haunted by all the people he killed for the CIA, Bourne (Damon) is living off the grid in Greece as a bare-knuckle brawler. Meanwhile, ex-CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is in Iceland hacking classified agency databases for more information on Bourne before he had his brains scrambled by Operation Treadstone. This gets the attention of CIA Cyber Ops chief Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and knowledge of the breach is quickly reported to the current director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).
The rather ambitious Lee pushes to be put in charge of the operation to find and bring in Nicky and, if possible, Bourne while Dewey hedges his bets and brings in the Asset (Vincent Cassel), an Operation Blackbriar assassin, to take out Bourne. The rest of the film plays out in tried and true Bourne fashion with him on the run from the CIA, which takes him to various places all over the world, trying to piece together more of his past until the inevitable confrontation with a rival assassin.
Bourne and Nicky’s initial meet and greet is amidst turbulent demonstrations and civil unrest on the streets of Athens. Greengrass does an excellent job orchestrating and immersing us in this chaos as we see Bourne use it to his advantage. The director ratchets up the tension as CIA operatives close in on Bourne and Nicky, demonstrating why he’s still one of the best action directors around.
The Bourne films have always had memorable fight scenes and this one is no different as Bourne and the Asset have a bloody, knock down, drag-out fight that is a more stripped down encounter then in previous films. Jason Bourne also has a memorable chase sequence as Bourne pursues the Asset, driving an armored SWAT truck, through the streets of Las Vegas in an exciting, intense sequence.
For most of the film, Matt Damon plays the Bourne we are familiar with from the previous installments but this is bookended by the introductory scene, which gives us a self-destructive man with no direction, and a climactic scene towards the end where he confronts Dewey and you can see Bourne trying to figure out who he is and what he wants to do next. The most frustrating aspect of Jason Bourne is that Damon and Greengrass don’t delve into Bourne’s questioning side enough as they fall back on the requisite action set pieces of mayhem that is the staple of the franchise.
Tommy Lee Jones brings his trademark, no-nonsense gruffness as he plays yet another government bureaucrat frustrated by Bourne’s actions. Alicia Vikander plays a thankless role that requires very little emotion on her part, as her icy operative remains enigmatic and morally elusive. The always-reliable Vincent Cassel plays the first of Bourne’s rival assassins to have significant screen-time and something of a backstory that gives the character a personal stake in his mission to stop Bourne.
After The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon were done with the franchise with the former saying, “I discovered in my heart I didn’t have another one in me,” and the latter quoted as saying, “For me, I kind of feel the story that we set out to tell has now been told.” Over the years, the latter, motivated by fans of the films, felt it was time to revisit the character. After the commercial and critical success of Captain Phillips (2013), Greengrass was in no hurry to revisit the franchise.
In 2013, Universal Pictures executives met with Damon in the hopes that the actor would be open to another Bourne film. He was, but what clinched it was while making Elysium (2013) in Vancouver, he accidentally came across the production offices for The Bourne Legacy: “I thought I was completely at peace with the three movies…but when I saw their production offices, it hurt me in a way that surprised me.”
Damon met with Greengrass in Los Angeles and told him how much people wanted to see another Bourne film. This got the director thinking about ideas for a new one along with his longtime creative partner (and editor on several of his films) Christopher Rouse who said, “At heart, Bourne is a patriot who’s been betrayed by the institutions he believed in. Those are very identifiable feelings for people today.”
Greengrass wanted to make the new film relevant to what was going on in the world – like the others in the series – and began writing the screenplay at the end of 2014 with Rouse and input from Damon, incorporating narrative threads from Ultimatum with aspects of online privacy, including a Julian Assange-type character and a Facebook-type company set in a post-Edward Snowden world. Unlike the previous Bourne films, Greengrass had worked on they had a completed script before principal photography began.
The tricky thing about sequels is that if you deviate too far from what made the previous film(s) successful you risk alienating fans who want more of what they loved. If you stick too close to the formula you’re criticized for playing it safe. Either way, filmmakers are screwed but the best sequels build on what came before in a meaningful and satisfying way. Jason Bourne is somewhat successful in doing so.
What separates Jason Bourne from the other films in the series and makes it relevant for what is happening in the world today? For starters, cyber warfare features prominently with Heather Lee representing a new kind of foot soldier – the hacker that knows how to manipulate data in new ways that makes it tougher for people like Bourne to evade detection and achieve his goals. Social media is featured prominently as Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the CEO and founder of Deep Dream, a Google+-type website, is in bed with the CIA, which raises all sorts of questions about privacy on the Internet. If electronic data exists online it is accessible to anyone with the skills to retrieve it.
I enjoyed slipping back into the familiar rhythms of Greengrass’ Bourne films – the rapid-fire editing, the kinetic, hand-held camerawork, and the intriguing critique of CIA surveillance techniques masquerading as an action thriller. It is this finger on the pulse of contemporary geopolitics and how it intersects with cutting edge technology that has made the Bourne films distinctive from the James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises. I also like the personal nature of the Bourne films. He isn’t interested in saving the world from some power-hungry villain. He just wants to find out more about who he is and why he became a CIA operative, and if he puts a spanner in the works of a few of their programs then so be it.
Watching Jason Bourne makes The Bourne Legacy that much more of an unnecessary installment within the franchise both tonally and visually. Despite being written by Gilroy it never felt like it existed in the Bourne world despite the connective narrative tissue. It didn’t feel like a Bourne film but rather a simulacrum of one. Jason Bourne takes us back to this world in a way that is entertaining and is relevant to what is happening in the world today.
Anthony, Andrew. “Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass: ‘We’ll never say never again’” The Guardian. July 17, 2016.
Leigh, Danny. “Paul Greengrass on Matt Damon and Making it Big in Hollywood.” FT Magazine. July 21, 2016.
Manly, Lorne. “Why Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass Couldn’t Quit Jason Bourne.” The New York Times. July 12, 2016.