The Bourne Identity launched an entirely new kind of spy movie when it was released in June, 2002. It was sharp, serious, and critical of counterintelligence agencies without ever appearing outright subversive. Next to the Bond series—responsible for Die Another Day that same summer—Bourne seemed like a true 21st century superspy: stoic, solitary, and maybe a little paranoid. He was scarily efficient, and he knew it. The best moment in that very good movie comes when an amnesiac Bourne is accosted by a few cops and, after a spark of memory, sends them flying without even knowing how.
Alongside its kinetic momentum, that movie had an unlikely emotional depth—Bourne’s sudden familiarity with deadly martial arts raises more questions than answers—and a confident sense of humor. A lot of that came from Franka Potente, who played a Bohemian student whom Bourne recruits for a car ride but ends up aiding in the quest to regain his memory. She was dispatched Janet Leigh-style at the beginning of the sequel—Bourne’s humor dimmed substantially after Paul Greengrass replaced Doug Liman as director—but the journey continued through two more movies and a series of obstructive upper-management types played by older white men (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Strathairn, Albert Finney). The entire series was fueled by Bourne’s attempt to both fill in the gaps and distance himself as far as possible from his murderous, government-sanctioned past. By the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, the movies’ point was clear: lack of foreign-policy oversight is a bad thing.
Even at the time, the series seemed to be an ongoing commentary on the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation. The five-year period in which they were made coincided with the war on terror and the rise of cyber warfare. Those issues have only become murkier, but Bourne seemed to find some peace at the end: he checked out. After discovering and confronting those responsible for his programming, Bourne was whole again. Despite their inherently political build, the series was always more concerned with the man than the machine—it started with Identity, after all.
With his identity intact—the new one is called, simply, Jason Bourne—why bring Bourne back? This installment spends a lot of its first act referring to Edward Snowden and introduces a Mark Zuckerberg type who’s furtively and remorsefully in cahoots with the CIA. Interestingly, this “Zuckerberg” is of Middle Eastern descent and the movie hints that guilt over his heritage played a role in his decision to share his users’ metadata. But Greengrass’s movies specialize in eliding action—their shaky-cam aesthetic has ensured so much of it will be hard to see—and they don’t pause for little character moments or big ideas. Beyond buzzwords and a general sense that surveillance is bad, the movie doesn’t have much to say about the conflict between security and net neutrality. Enhanced interrogation was built into the character from the beginning—Bourne was a product of it—but this movie’s focus on cyber security feels like headline grabbing.
Beyond the thematic shift, so much here feels rote. With Bourne in one piece and nowhere to go but backward, Jason Bourne replays so many story beats and situations from the first three that it feels like a condensed retelling of the first three installments—or worse, self-parody. From the megalomaniacal villain to Bourne’s impossible stunts to a Las Vegas chase straight out of Diamonds Are Forever, Bourne has never felt more like an overly serious Bond. But the Bond series never considered itself politically relevant; when Jason Bourne implies that the CIA regularly engages in false flag operations, the whole thing feels more than a little reckless.
Maybe recklessness has always been a part of these movies. From the beginning, they’ve insisted that Bourne is a product of short-sighted overreach and an agency out of control. Even under a new kind of threat, these movies have said, engineered assassins like Bourne are unnecessary no matter how reliable or effective.
After Jason Bourne, I’m convinced they’re right.
Jason Bourne. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse. Starring Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, and Alicia Vikander. Opens in Kansas City July 29, 2016.