Reverberations of 2002’s “The Bourne Identity” can still be felt throughout the Hollywood film industry. It kicked off a whole new spy movie genre so powerful, it ended up “de-Bondifying” James Bond.
The main reason it was so good was the premise: here’s a guy whose brain can’t remember who he is, but whose muscle memory knows exactly what he did for a living. He wanders around like a lost child, but when the police prod him with nightsticks, explosive, audience-gasp-producing jiujitsu moves suddenly materialize out of nowhere, surprising Bourne just as much as they do us.
That was the key, the addictive hook, and we immediately wanted to go on a journey of self-discovery with him. Here’s the clincher monologue from “The Bourne Identity”:
“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed, and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds, and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun, is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat-out for a half-mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that, and not know who I am?”
Jason Bourne just had to figure out why that was. And we just simply had to know too.
“The Bourne Identity” also featured rustic settings in mildly exotic locations: quaint French countryside cottages, fishing boats, and cobblestone streets—it was exceedingly European. All that, plus this amnesiac, ex-Delta Force, CIA black ops agent running around “off the reservation.” It was gritty, grounded, realistic—even a little arty. We couldn’t remember seeing anything like it. It was special and different.
Five installments later, what makes 2016’s “Jason Bourne” special and different from any other spy-assassin story out there today? Nothing, really. The franchise is unfortunately out of gas; the element of surprise is long gone, and Bourne more or less knows who he is, so the mystery’s over. Mostly.
So what’s the dratted CIA up to this time? Turns out, they’ve funded a Stanford-educated, Mark Zuckerberg-like whiz kid named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) to develop a new social media platform called Deep Dream, so the agency can sneak in its back door and set up a state of “full-spectrum surveillance—watching everyone all the time.”
We’ve known about Treadstone (the black ops program Bourne was part of) and Blackbriar (in the one movie Damon passed on), where Jeremy Renner’s character was the pill-popping super-assassin the CIA was trying to squelch. This covert social media scam, code-named “Ironhand,” will be the CIA’s newest Orwellian snoop technology.
The whiz kid’s idealistic, though, and doesn’t want to be a sellout, but unfortunately for him he already made a deal with the devil at the crossroads, and the CIA’s got him like a fly in a (world wide) web.
Aaron’s looking to make a big stink; there’ll be a Vegas convention debate on personal rights versus public safety. The panel will include Aaron along with CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), among others.
Hmm … maybe somebody’s going to clip that ungrateful brat with a suppressed sniper rifle. Who knows, maybe clip the head spook too—graze him, to make it look good.
Meanwhile Bourne’s still out there, looking for answers. He’s taken up underground MMA fighting to make a little cash. After all, you’re not going to catch an ex-Delta Force operative slinging hash in a burger joint.
His memory is mostly back, but there are still some missing puzzle pieces concerning how he ended up being a ruthless assassin with an erased memory. Being the dogged bloodhound and wildly gifted hunter-killer that he is, he remains the CIA’s worst nightmare.
Furthermore, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is no longer the wet-behind-the-ears, green young agent she once was; she’s been burned and used by the CIA, and has hooked up with a hacker collective to expose the agency’s infernal black ops programs.
She uncovers a file linking Bourne’s father (also a military man, but not as gifted as his son) to Treadstone, whereupon Bourne starts flashing back to a meeting he and dad had in Lebanon. Don’t get Jason Bourne started.
So, clearly, CIA Director Dewey’s got a lot on his plate. He puts young, eager-to-make-her-bones agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) on Bourne’s trail, possibly to get him back on the reservation, along with two spec ops teams, including one particularly vicious operator referred to only as the “Asset” (French actor Vincent Cassel), who’s got a personal vendetta against Bourne.
What They’d Ostensibly Hoped to Duplicate
They’ve covered most of what makes a Bourne movie a Bourne movie, but lost the realism. You’ve got your vehicular chase scenes that go up and down steep staircases, including a chase-duel involving a S.W.A.T. truck versus a Dodge Charger, with the truck snow-plowing cars airborne like it’s got a train cow-catcher on the front of it. It’s unrealistic mayhem.
Secondly, “Identity’s” olive-skinned German actress Franka Potente’s brilliant naturalistic acting was 100 percent captivating. Her face actually went pale when faced with Bourne’s brutal Krav Maga annihilation of an assassin, not to mention her rapidly growing shock and awe at the fight-art/techno-savvy of a man so rugged and deadly (and also absolutely clueless, and therefore wildly mysterious) to keep her safe. Juxtaposed with all that, her response to his plaintive, maternal-instinct-triggering, lost-child honesty was powerful and palpable.
In 2016, they’ve brought in Swedish, olive-skinned, current it-girl Alicia Vikander, who’s got some of Potente’s European flair, mystery, and minimal accent. She’s a top-shelf actress, but she’s rather muted here.
Director Paul Greengrass furthermore brought in heavy-hitter actor Jones, probably in the hopes that he’d reprise the role that truly put him on the map: that of U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard in “The Fugitive,” since that film had the same set-up—hunting down a non-bad guy who’s not sure what’s going on.
Unfortunately, Jones’s Ur-grump schtick—his brilliant deadpan humor and dog-faced stoicism offset with occasional flair-ups of Type A, alpha-male barking and braying—is, like Vikander’s, too muted to have its usual effect (which is that basically you can’t wait till the next time he’s on screen to see more of it).
The Fight’s Not Right
One of the main things that was so compelling about the original “Bourne” was the authentic feel of the fight scenes. Being a fight fan, I’ve watched “Identity” many a time and slo-mo’d the DVD to replay/examine exactly what Matt Damon was up to—it’s all exquisitely choreographed.
In every “Bourne” movie since, including the latest, the fight scenes have been unsatisfactory, with far too much dizzying shaky-cam. You can’t really see what’s happening, so it has the overall effect of making the action and technique feel slightly fudged, although we know from Damon’s inherent level of integrity in all that he does that that’s not the case. We just can’t see what he’s up to.
Also, the movie trailer set high expectations for some serious bare-knuckle MMA bouts; you go in thinking you’re going to get a bunch of that, but pretty much you’ve seen the whole thing already: a couple of one-punch KO’s.
Lee is normally brilliant, Vikander’s normally brilliant, and so’s Damon. I want to see all that brilliance, clear-cut. Tone down the flash, the endless shots of riot-gear’d police phalanxes and Molotov-cocktail-lobbing demonstrators, and the repetitive, uninspired score. All in all, it’s fudged fighting and not enough substance for the mega-talented cast to sink their teeth into.
To revitalize the franchise, they might consider knocking Bourne upside the head and disappearing his memory again. The true joy of “Bourne” is to see it all coming back to him while he’s in the midst of doing cool stuff. Otherwise it’s just straightforward detective work. But we already know his secrets—and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Release Date: July 29
Rated 3 out of 5 stars