The world never needed another Bourne sequel. When Matt Damon’s titular human war machine swam away into the depths of the Hudson at the sobering conclusion of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, so did the franchise, and for good reason. Jason Bourne’s story had come to an agreeable end, justice was served, and the truth was out there. Despite a nightmarish pre-production in the writer’s room, stemming from screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s dissatisfaction with the focus of 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, Paul Greengrass’ blockbuster threequel shimmied by unscathed, closing the proverbial book on the Robert Ludlum adaptation and capping off one of the better trilogies in recent memory.
Perhaps Damon said it best in May 2007, mere months before Ultimatum hit screens: “We have ridden that horse as far as we can.” Naturally, money talks, and when he was egged on by the press about a fourth outing closer to its release, he walked back on his thoughts, but not by much, contending: “…if there was to be another one, then it would have to be a complete reconfiguration, you know, where do you go from there?” Five years later, said reconfiguration surfaced with The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner as another runaway soldier. Written by Gilroy, the spin-off pivoted rather than followed, and while it dipped into science fiction, it was assured enough to feel like it stood on its own.
Jason Bourne, however, does not.
The much-ballyhooed return of Greengrass and Damon has surprisingly warranted a disappointing sequel, an unnecessary chapter that feels written at gunpoint, and the story is curiously transparent about this. Nearly 10 years following Ultimatum, Bourne — ahem, David Webb — is living outside of Athens, making money by pounding the shit out of some hunky Greeks. That all changes when runaway operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) pulls him out of hiding to let him know the CIA is back at it again with a program even worse than Treadstone. It’s called Ironhand, and wouldn’t you know it, coincidentally connects back to Bourne’s father in what’s arguably this series’ most egregious case of mythmaking.
From there, the film more or less revisits the same beats as Supremacy, even down to the deaths and the speedy climax, only now the proceedings feel formulaic — especially the structure. As expected, there’s The Veteran Antagonist (Tommy Lee Jones, filling in for Brian Cox, David Strathairn, and Albert Finney), The Mixed Feelings Accomplice (Alicia Vikander, following Franke Potente, Joan Allen, and eventually Stiles), and the Brutish Hitman (Vincent Cassel, tagging in for Clive Owen, Karl Urban, and Edgar Ramirez). Together, they all mutter a bunch of “There’s Bourne”s and “We lost him”s and “I knew you’d come after me”s, as if we’re supposed to feel their astonishment … four films later.
Sadly, those pieces of dialogue are far more forgiving than clunkers like this one: “We both want to take down the corrupt institutions that control society.” Good grief, Charlie Brown. Whereas Gilroy was masterful at natural dialogue (see also: 2007’s Michael Clayton), Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse deliver horrendous fluff that crudely vacillates between Exposition 101 and bad pilots for Showtime. Save for Damon and Cassell, nobody even tries to enliven the source material; Jones couldn’t appear more resigned (keep a close eye on how he stumbles out of a Vegas elevator for peak boredom), while recent Oscar winner Vikander sleepwalks through her role (undoubtedly failing the Turing test).
(Read: Matt Damon’s Top 10 Performances)
Having said that, the scenery and the production itself are quite fantastic. Greengrass stretches his story across the States and Europe, visiting Athens, London, Berlin, Washington DC, and Las Vegas with remarkable ease. His return may not be triumphant, per se, but his eye for action remains ever vigilant. An early sequence involving a fiery, city-wide riot across Athens is breathtaking, a dazzling portrait of chaos that’s fueled by anxious crosscutting and a barrage of aural effects. The same can be said about a tense chase at a London pavilion midway through the film, one that thrives with unpredictability and outlandish stakes. These are reputable scenes that offer all the bang for your buck.
But the buck stops here for Jason Bourne. There’s just not a lot of weight to this sequel, at least not enough to dissuade anyone from seeing this as anything but a limpid cash grab. It’s funny; at one point, Vikander pleads to Damon that he doesn’t have to do this, that he has a choice, that he can walk away. By now, anyone with half a brain in box office logic knows that’s just not the case and that Bourne must run and gun forever — as Universal Pictures chairwoman Donna Langley explicitly stated last week. Strangely enough, that blockbuster greed has eerily bled into the actual story, crumpling any expectations that audiences might hold for their would-be dicey hero.
Because, really, those extreme ways of his will always be back.