#4 in my ranking of the Bourne Franchise.
Paul Greengrass really thinks he’s Gillo Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras, and he let that flag fly here in Jason Bourne. This is also the first Bourne film that does not involve Tony Gilroy (who apparently delivered a subpar first draft for The Bourne Ultimatum which really angered Matt Damon), and Greengrass himself has a writing credit. This is probably the most purely Greengrass movie of the Bourne franchise, and it really shows in not a very good way.
That being said, Jason Bourne actually starts off surprisingly strongly. I mean, for almost forty minutes this is close to my favorite of the franchise. Jason has become a vagabond fighter, wandering the armpits of Central Europe as an underground boxer, dead to the world because of the realization at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum that he volunteered to become the assassin he ran away from in the first movie. His only objective is to hide. In Greece, Nicky Parsons tracks him down right after she hacked the CIA and got files about Treadstone, Blackbriar, and the newest form of the black on black ops that succeeded them. She gets him to meet her near the center of a riot in progress in Athens at night, and Greengrass managed the single best sequence in the entire franchise, bar none. I mean, I adore the Moscow chase in The Bourne Supremacy and the Waterloo sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum, but the technical execution of the riot in Athens is flat out amazing.
There’s never any feeling that the edges of the frame aren’t spilling with chaos. Fires, crowds, tear gas, and troops are all always populating the frame around the characters as they try to move through and out. All the while, of course because this is a Jason Bourne movie, the CIA is watching and trying to track Nicky and Jason while they send another assassin in. The controlled chaos as Jason walks in, steals a motorcycle, rides around, picks up Nicky, and rides out, all while an incredibly realistic portrait of rioting chaos erupts around them is amazing.
And then the movie trips. You see, Jason has no reason for getting involved in this movie’s plot. He has no motivation to try and rip down the CIA again, so they have Nicky die, killed by the assassin. As soon as I saw this coming, I felt like I was watching a Death Wish sequel where increasingly tenuous relationships to Charles Bronson get beat up by local thugs which lead to Bronson deciding to clean up the streets. Nicky was never a close connection to Jason after his amnesia. There were implications in The Bourne Ultimatum that the two had a romantic relationship before Jason lost his memory, but this Jason never felt it, rebuffing the idea of even revisiting it because he was still consumed by the loss of his own love Maria. So, Nicky, a person he’s met about three times in his entire living memory and hasn’t seen or heard from in about six years, suddenly dying feels like really poor justification for his decision to get back into this game. It’s thin, and it doesn’t work.
It’s about here in the film where another major problem develops: there are simply too many stories floating around. A lot of this is rooted in Greengrass’s desire to turn this into a topical social commentary, but he doesn’t integrate it with the narrative particularly well.
So, the CIA story is told through the eyes of Heather Lee, an ambitious young cybersecurity guru who uses Nicky’s hack as a way to make herself seen and known to Robert Dewey, the CIA Director. She heads the operation to track down the hacker and then Bourne. The assassin is The Asset, and he is possibly the source of some of the worst of this movie. It’s not that Vincent Cassel is bad (though he does feel a little old to be an active duty deadly assassin), it’s that they shoehorn him into yet another series of flashbacks for Bourne that is designed to alleviate Jason of his guilt for choosing to join Treadstone. You see, the CIA killed Jason’s father right after Jason was offered the post, but Jason’s father actually conceived of the program himself and was going to talk him out of it. The murder of Jason’s father was designed to convince Jason to join. This is designed to absolve Jason of the guilt he had been accumulating, but everything about it, his father, his father’s place in the CIA, his father’s design of Treadstone, and The Asset’s hand in the murder are all simply too much when it comes to late franchise additions to Bourne’s past. The Asset’s hand in the murder is the worst part, trying to give Jason some kind of emotional connection to The Asset to play out in a final fistfight that, because everything came so quickly and so late and so thinly, ends up feeling flat.
The action moves to London where Jason tries to track down a former CIA analyst who had connections with his father, but things go awry, of course, putting Heather in The Asset’s sights as well as Bourne when she begins to turn on Dewey. The CIA Director, at the same time, is trying to expand an Internet spying program with a Google-like company that they helped set up while the CEO of said company is getting cold feet. This is the part of the film that feels the most removed from everything (even though the third act literally revolves around it) and the reason that Greengrass decided to make the movie. It’s the most socially conscious part of the film, and it is a couple of major steps removed from the central (and title!) character’s motives.
Why does Jason Bourne go to Las Vegas? Pretty much because the move demands it. Bourne stops having motives in this movie pretty much the moment he meets the former CIA analyst in London. The movie needs to go to Las Vegas for a gun fight and a car chase right after some speechifying about Internet freedom, so he does.
Everything from this point is perfunctory at best. The action scenes are as well filmed as anything, but they’re empty exercises in technique. Jason’s fistfight with The Asset feels tacked on. The Internet freedom stuff seems to come from another movie (the one that Greengrass seems to have wanted to make instead of all the other stuff).
Really, this movie just completely falls apart after a certain point, torn apart by several different stories going in different directions, new backstories that feel regressive narratively, and a whole bunch of computer wizardry that had my cybersecurity wife frustrated at from beginning to end. But, holy crap, that first thirty minutes is kind of awesome. It definitely doesn’t hold the rest of the movie up, but it does stand on its own. Just turn off the movie once Nicky gets shot, and you’ll be happy.