Steve McQueen was a self-regarding, mean-spirited movie star who red penned a lot of his dialogue, or gave it to a supporting actor. This left him to play Mr Strong and Silent, a technique that guaranteed the camera had to be on him if it was to convey any of his character’s emotion to us. His character was always Steve McQueen, King of Cool, truculent rebel, with at least one motorbike chase and one car chase written into his contract. McQueen was also late on the set.
Matt Damon who plays Jason Bourne is the antithesis of McQueen. By all accounts, totally professional, generous to his acting colleagues, politically liberal, choosing scripts with a good message as well as a good story. But in his latest outing as the haunted special operations man he hardly speaks a word. This is a waste of his skill to deliver a line with weight and meaning. And there is not a moment where he can crack a smile let alone a joke. He does, however ride a motorbike in a hunt chase in the first reel, and drives a car too fast in the third reel. Something has gone seriously wrong.
There’s a moment in Connery’s Thunderball, fighting with eye patch villain Emilio Largo in his yacht, when the scene is speeded up to show us the speedboat is aiming straight for a rocky outcrop. We laugh because the special effect is so clunky. Today we are used to the subtlety of computer generated effects that can heighten real life and still make what we see seem natural. Jason Bourne is one long special effect. Everything is larger than life. That pairing down to basics is perhaps why producers gave us only his name as the title, there’s no ‘identity’, ‘legacy’ or ‘supremacy’.
A more appropriate title would be Jason Bourne Walking. He does a lot of that.
For the first five minutes we get a rehash of key scenes from the past Bourne films. Did the producers worry they were a generation late in getting the fifth Bourne film made, no one would remember plot? This is Damon’s fourth go, he sat out the previous entry, The Bourne Legacy, which starred a capable but underwhelming Jeremy Renner.
What it signals is a reboot, and quite frankly I am getting fed up paying good money to see essentially the same film repeated, but played back to front. Anywhere else that’s called misrepresentation of goods.
The film’s biggest flaw, and it has many, is the total lack of mystery, the one quality that had us watch the last films. Bourne knows who he is, wants to be left alone, but is asked to ‘come back in’ to the agency, so they can kill him, yet again, the bad guys inside the agency worried he might reveal their dastardly plans. Well, common sense tells the stupidest idiot to leave Bourne alone and he won’t be drawn into the agency’s unethical and unlawful conspiracies, and want to do something about the sleaze.
Like the Bond movies – which this franchise frightened sufficiently for Bond’s producers to panic and alter Bond’s character out of all recognition – Bourne gives us exotic locations. They don’t make up for the lack of plot. The annoyance is Jason Bourne goes over ground too similar to its predecessors, minus the poetic urgency of Bourne’s quest for self-discovery — surely a profoundly critical element.
When the new film opens, a forlorn Bourne is adrift on the Greece-Albania border earning a living as an underground bare knuckles fighter, downing opponents with a single punch, not a great way of giving the paying, betting, braying spectators their money’s worth.
Fellow renegade agent Nicky Parsons, (the underused Julia Stiles) hacks into a government computer and digs up a file suggesting that Bourne’s father may have been involved with the program that took away the young man’s identity, a discovery which is almost all the plot. Wanting to know why his father lost his life is Bourne’s entire quest. By not giving us any back story on Bourne’s relationship with his father, we’re left Bourne bored.
Anyway, all these threads plus more skulduggery from Bourne’s agency that should know better by now converge to form a narrative curiously devoid of suspense. We get a topical conspiracy this time, a Face Book type Internet company that is in league with the devil but that too feels curiously lifted from another film, and antiseptic.
The performances are unimpressive. Damon has a good line in looking quizzical and intense, and the earlier films used that quality to locate a quiet pathos in this badass character, a vulnerability. Here he just seems puzzled.
Robert Dewey, the agency boss, (Tommy Lee Jones) is reduced to staring at employees menacingly and giving out orders. He plays a variation of our own Brian Cox who was also once a corrupt Bourne boss. The normally exciting French actor, Vincent Cassel as Bourne’s deadly nemesis, is here reduced to – you’ve guessed it, walking and driving fast. In fact, Cassel is criminally underused.
There is the token bitch from hell role for Heather Lee, but she too is a one note Harridan. Her character is a computer-surveillance expert, so we get to see her do nifty stuff with facial-recognition software, but not much of that important thing called acting.
There’s assassination in crowded streets as before, a trick to heighten the drama – where either no one notices or everybody screams and runs in all directions; overkill in dead bodies; far too many car crashes, and interesting inclusion of political riots in Athens, Greece. The camerawork is as before, hand held, shaky, and often annoyingly frenetic.
Director Paul Greengrass’s signature style is predicable, ‘keep it moving 100 miles hour on the bends and 150 on the straights’. We’ve seen it all before. Though we thought Bourne had killed off the outdated Bond, the Bond franchise may just outlive an aimless Bourne.
If asked for a one-line critique I’d say more Where’s Waldo? than Where’s Bourne?
- Star Rating: Three stars (Deserves two!)
- Starring: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Lee, Vincent Cassel
- Screenplay: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Ruse
- Director: Paul Greengrass
- Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
- Duration: 123 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?