*Spoilers for Jason Bourne and all the proceeding Bourne films*
The Bourne films are clearly popular. Therefore, a lot of people like them. I, however, love them. While I don’t care for the Legacy, the peculiar semi-sequel with Jeremy Renner rather than Matt Damon, I’ve watched each of three ‘proper’ Bourne films – the Identity, the Supremacy and the Ultimatum – at least a dozen times. Including one New Year’s when I binged them all in a single sitting.
Despite this I had reservations about a fifth film. When it was first announced I wrote that:
“Beneath all the shaky cam, parkour and killing people with pens; the Bourne films had a very human narrative arc. When at the start of the Identity we first encounter Jason Bourne on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean, he has absolutely no recollection of who he is. By the end of the Ultimatum he has looked into the eyes of the man who effected his transformation from ordinary soldier to superior assassin and told him “I remember.” Bourne’s very literal identity crisis was the motor of the films and by the close of the trilogy it had been fittingly resolved. Further films are superfluous.”
But things started looking up. Paul Greengrass – the director of the Supremacy and the Ultimatum and crafter of many of the franchises’ most recognisable traits – was brought onboard and the trailer looked cool. So I began to doubt my doubts.
Sadly the finished product is deeply underwhelming. Partly that’s a function of the fact that the novelty has worn off. Things that once seemed revelatory now look merely competent. Not of course that we should take for granted the kind of competence Paul Greengrass has. But even the best of the scenes he creates this time round lack the punch of their predecessors. It’s also strangely cold.
Nonetheless, the early indications are that it will make enough money that a sixth film is at least a possibility. If that happens here are some of the ways I feel it could be more interesting than Jason Bourne.
1. Hire a proper scriptwriter
Jason Bourne was the first film in the franchise not to be written or co-written by Tony Gilroy. The job was instead done by Greengrass and his editor. It goes without saying that both of these men have talent to spare but not necessarily as scriptwriters.
Gilroy could make bureaucrats bickering spark with a kind of workaday Sorkinism. For example:
Ward Abbott: Can you really bring him in?
Conklin: I think we’re past that, don’t you? What, do you have a better idea?
Ward Abbott: Well, so far, you’ve given me nothing but a trail of collateral damage from Zurich to Paris. I don’t think I could do much worse.
Conklin: Well, why don’t you go upstairs and book a conference room. Maybe you can talk him to death.
In Jason Bourne we instead get dialogue like “we should work together Bourne. We both want to bring down the corrupt institutions that control our society” that is so obviously functional that it sounds like a placeholder added to an early draft of the script that no one got round to replacing. That means that the scenes centring on Bourne’s CIA antagonists – which are essentially all dialogue – subtract rather than add tension.
Fixing this doesn’t necessarily mean bringing Gilroy back. He may be too busy with Star Wars or simply have given this franchise all he has to offer. But the next film ought to have a professional script writer on board. How about Gregory Burke? He who wrote the very Greengrassian ’71 after all.
2. Bring back Joan Allen
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs then you might be Pamela Landy. The steely CIA trouble shooter with a moral centre played by Joan Allen was one of the best parts of the Supremacy and the Ultimatum. She gave us someone to root for in the CIA sequences and her return would likely improve any new film.
3. The villain should be played by someone who wants to be there
The Bourne franchise has had a run of interesting and distinctive villains. They’ve all been shadowy CIA figures. However, each actor put a different twist on them. Chris Cooper played his as an unhinged missionary, Brian Cox as a venal figure taking what he can under the cover of official secrecy and hiding his theft under a growing pile of corpses, David Strathairn a loyal agency man – a sort of Sir Humphrey of the CIA – and Edward Norton a sort of dark reflection of Pamela Landy, he efficiently solves problems even if those problems are people and the solution is killing them.
By contrast, in Jason Bourne we have Tommy Lee Jones looking bored. He does things. Those things generally advance the plot but they don’t add up to a portrayal of a real feeling character. That’s partly a product of the poor writing. But mostly its Jones’ responsibility. When he chooses to be, he is a great actor. But of late he seems to be doing a lot of showing up to collect the cheque. When he does he’s pretty unengaging.
So the next instalment needs a better villain. That may well be Alicia Vikander’s character making a return. Overconfident prodigy certainly would be a new kind of antagonist. But there are other actors one could look to. I’d love to see Michelle Yeoh, Mark Gatiss or Peter Dinklage give it a try but only if they are genuinely interested in their character.
4. Draw inspiration from the news. Don’t copy it!
The Bourne films present a rather cynical depiction of the American intelligence agencies. They are shown as corrupt, homicidal, error prone, reckless, disrespectful of both American and international law, and willing to abuse their authority to keep all of that hidden.
Subsequent events have vindicated much of this depiction. The Iraqi WMD programs the CIA verified the existence of turned out to be a hoax. It transpired that the CIA was abducting terrorism suspects of the streets of European cities so they could be tortured by allies with dubious human rights records, a process known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. Edward Snowden revealed a pattern of quite possibly illegal mass surveillance. This was actually less damning than the fact that before Snowden went to the press, a number of other whistleblowers had gone through official channels and been prosecuted for it. And assassination has become a central plank of the war on terror, it’s just been conducted with drones rather than spies.
But whereas the original trilogy was prescient, Jason Bourne is reactive. Real people, issues and organisation are more or less transcribed into the plot. There are stand-ins for Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerberg. Snowden is actually mentioned by name.
That makes the parallels the film draws a) jarringly obvious and b) decidedly unoriginal. Popular culture has already digested the repercussions of the Snowden leak: think of Captain America: Winter Soldier or Person of Interest.
Given Greengrass’ background as a journalist you’d hope for some new insight. In earlier films, he and Gilroy picked up on how the War on Terror was militarising the CIA and imagined why that might be dangerous. This was a process perhaps assisted by the fact that Greengrass had previously done a lot of work focusing on Northern Ireland, so had seen how a war on terror can corrupt security forces. Jason Bourne conspicuously lacks a similar leap of imagination. Which is a pity. It would have been interesting to see Greengrass grapple with say the idea of a return to geopolitical competition between great powers. How would Bourne fit into that world? Might he, for example, encounter a Russian or Chinese treadstone?
Whatever direction they take the Bourne franchise should aim to be ahead of the news not behind it.
5. Bourne needs to grow not regress
A big problem with Jason Bourne is that the eponymous hero doesn’t really develop as a character. Stuff happens to him and his status quo at the end differs from the beginning. But none of this change really gets at who he is. Todd VanDerWerff puts this well in his review of the film for Vox:
..the worst decision Jason Bourne makes is smothering all of this [plot development] with a heaping helping of daddy issues. Bourne wasn’t just made a super spy, see. No, it turns out his father was involved in the creation of the Treadstone program that trained him and took his memory. And, of course, Bourne’s father is dead, so he has no real way to process these emotions.
The sins of the father being at the root of the son’s issues is a very old one in fiction, but it’s rarely done as lazily as it is here. The “Bourne’s dad was maybe evil?!” plot feels so perfunctory that it’s a surprise any of the actors can play it with a straight face.
Even worse is that the film has an effective story it could use to motivate Bourne — his clear questioning of whether the truly patriotic thing to do is remain a rogue CIA weapon. Couldn’t he do some good working for the government again? The film introduces that idea, then shrugs it off in favor of the dead dad stuff. It’s enervating.
In my opinion worse still is that Bourne’s development from previous films is actually undone.
In the early stages of the Supremacy, Bourne’s romantic partner Marie is killed by an assassin targeting Bourne himself. This sets him on a quest for revenge. But along the way he realises that killing on Marie’s behalf would betray her memory. He eventually decides that the way to honour her is not to punish people for their sins but to make amends for his own.
Jason Bourne also sets him on a quest for revenge only this time he kills the people he’s after. It never even tries to square that with his decision in the Supremacy.
6. Keep it grounded
In general, Jason Bourne is a step down not only from the original trilogy but also the Bourne Legacy which did at least have a properly realised plot and cast of characters. But it made the unfortunate decision to devote a lot of attention to the mechanics of creating super-assassins. All the talk of genetic enhancing pills or whatever took the franchise perilously close to sci-fi which is an awkward fit for a series that’s principal selling point had been being down to earth. Jason Bourne avoids this error and any future films should follow it.
7. Go somewhere new
Bourne films have a formula. As it has produced 3 great films and 2 ok ones, mucking around with it too much would be a mistake. There should always be fights with improvised weapons, people staring at monitors whilst speaking quickly and a score that is 90% bassline. But Jason Bourne shows signs of staleness. This becomes especially apparent when Greengrass begins self-plagiarising. Dewey’s confession is like Abbot’s, Nicky Parson’s death by sniper recalls Marie’s and the huge car chase through Vegas is basically the same as the one through Moscow at the end of the Supremacy. They both feature Bourne in a car duelling with someone who killed a loved one and has an advantage over him because they are in a larger car. That allows them to trap Bourne’s car on their bumper but just before they can slam him into something, he manages to free his car, so it is his opponent that goes crashing into an obstacle.
But avoiding recreating past scenes isn’t really enough. Even when the scenes don’t appear to be replicas, they still lack freshness. The franchise needs to find a way to reinvigorate itself. I don’t know what that is. But until Universal do they probably shouldn’t greenlight any further instalments in the franchise.
The idea for this post is shamelessly ripped off from Screen Junkies