The tagline for Jason Bourne is the definitive yet poetic “You know his name”, an evocative phrase designed to speak to our familiarity with a character who, over the course of three genre-redefining films that caused among other Bond to play visual and narrative catch-up, we had come to know every well.
In fact, such has been our collective journey with Jason Bourne, played superbly by Matt Damon with the right mix of toughness and vulnerability, and directed by Paul Greengrass, that we viscerally lived every step in his quest to find out who he was and to enact justice against those shadowy figures in the CIA and the wider US Government who had stripped him of his identity in order to serve the “greater good”.
This has meant that unlike other characters who come to us largely fully-formed, Bourne was a work-in-progress that you couldn’t help but sympathise with, root for and champion at every turn.
He was the ultimate Good Guy, albeit one corrupted by powers beyond his control, up against a neverending stream of shadowy intelligence figures who couldn’t hope to compete with Bourne’s mix of toughness and emotional woundedness.
And yet 10 years after what was presented as the conclusion of his journey in The Bourne Ultimatum, which his sense of self was restored sufficiently to allow him to walk away from a fight he never asked for, there is a good chance we now know Bourne a little too well.
In other words, in Jason Bourne, he has gone from genre upsetting character on the make to the old hand with few secrets and not much left to reveal.
That’s not to say that the screenplay by Christopher Rouse and Paul Greengrass doesn’t attempt to give him some reason to put aside his restless wandering from one illegal street fight to another meet up with old ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who has uncovered some new information on Bourne’s induction into the Treadstone program and a disturbing link to his long-dead father.
But while it is, on the surface, a compelling reason to put on the old avenging gloves again, it simply doesn’t carry enough heft to sustain the narrative all the way through the film which ends up being a series of full-bore action scenes spread across the cities of the world such as Berlin, London and Las Vegas.
As far as a general spy thriller goes, Jason Bourne is perfectly serviceable, high-octane fun with just enough substance, or attempted substance, to make it worth plonking your money down at the box office.
But even though all the boxes are ticked, many of which Bourne was responsible for bringing to the table in a genre that had grown tired and imaginative, the film leaves you with the feeling you have seen it all before.
Try as you might to invest yourself fully in the tale of Bourne’s renewed question to get answers and further cement his sense of identity and purpose in life, there is nagging feeling that none of it really matters all that much.
It’s very much a sense of “Was this really necessary?” after The Bourne Ultimatum provided such a neat and fulfulling conclusion to the initial trilogy in the franchise.
Any longtime Bourne fans out there will be desperately willing the movie to conjure up the same energising life force as the first three films in the series, which sizzled with action, political commentary, real humanity and an inventive visual style that came to represent modern spy films from Bond to Mission Impossible and beyond.
And perhaps that is the problem.
With both its visual panache and its lone, wounded, searching protagonist both much aped by the genre it came to be the standard bearer for, and no real need to keep searching for answers after the really big ones had already been conclusively answered, is there anything left for Bourne to say?
Unlike Bond, who while conflicted largely came to us a complete and little-tinkered with persona, Bourne was always a man grappling with more and more unexplored dimensions to himself, and while you could argue that Jason Bourne uncovers a few more shards of information hitherto left uncovered, they really don’t the gravitas needed to give the film the emotional and existential impact of its predecessors.
The issue isn’t that this is a bad film; in many ways, it’s a gripping spy thriller that barely pauses for breath, is reasonably entertaining and does everything we expect it to do.
But therein lies the problem.
There is nothing new in Jason Bourne; again that is partly the result of the franchise being a victim of its own much-imitated success but it also speaks to a central problem with reviving a franchise whose main reason for existence was largely concluded by the last entry in the series (not counting the Jeremy Renner-starring fill-in, which was actually quite good even if distinctly Bourne-less), an entry so finely and perfectly wrought that no sequel was really needed.
But we live in an age where franchises are brought back from the figurative dead for all kinds of reasons but no one really stops to consider if it is a good idea, and if it is, whether there anyone really wants to see a beloved character brought back to big screen life.
The character of Bourne himself doesn’t suffer too much in the encounter, emerging from the well-worn fray as stoic, noble and exquisitely vulnerable as always (again a tribute to Damon’s inspired evocation of the wounded spy), but little is added either, and you emerge wondering why it is he wasn’t left to rest in peace as he would have wanted.