Then it fell apart....

It is some years since I worked as a film critic, but I still occasionally see a film that I want to write about. In this case, the long-awaited Jason Bourne.

[mild spoilers]

I yield to no-one in my love of the Bourne series, and I was looking forward to this. There was no clear need for a sequel after all this time, 14 years after the Bourne Identity and 9 after the Bourne Supremacy. But the question of what had become of Bourne was one that could have been worth answering.

Unfortunately, the answer suggested by this film is not a great one. We first see Bourne making a living in prize fights in Eastern Europe, and the camera lingers over the signs of the toll his life has taken. Scars from bullet wounds, the greying hair at the temples, the sinewy muscles.

The story here involves Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacking in and retrieving information about CIA black operations, and passing this to Bourne. The NCIS-level plotting has the CIA storing such data in a file labelled “Black Ops”. The CIA operative who spots the hack then attempts to track down Parsons, and through her, Bourne.

This young officer (Alicia Vikander), is a computer whiz who was hired straight from university - which from the looks of her was about six weeks ago. Vikander is fine as an actress, but the character is totally implausible. She’s far too young to be not only given control of an operation, but then to have the stones to ask to be made CIA director.

Vikander’s character should have been 10-20 years older, like Pam Landy (Joan Allen in The Bourne Supremacy). Landy was in the position of choosing between supporting her employers and having doubts about the Black Ops enterprise. Landy’s character also demonstrated what many mid-career women experience in male-dominated workforces. She gets gaslighted by her male colleagues, who plan to scapegoat her when a project goes wrong.

That level of nuance and development among the agency staff is absent here. Vikander’s character is apparently only driven by ambition. But having introduced a junior tech genius who could trace a hack, there should have been a character somewhere in the hierarchy between her and the old guy in the corner office. The character of “Generic senior CIA guy who wants Bourne gone" (previously played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Strathairn) is played by Tommy Lee Jones.

The limited storyline also involves some folderol about Bourne’s father, and Bourne’s motive for volunteering for Treadstone. But we learn nothing really new about Bourne, and this additional backstory is too hackneyed to build on the web of subterfuge created in the earlier films. Although his name is the title, Bourne is more the object than the subject of the action.

Bourne's nemesis, or rather, his opposite number, is a character not even given a name beyond "The Asset”. “The Asset” is played by Vincent Cassel, a lean actor with high cheekbones and a sardonic pout. An award-winning actor in France, he has appeared in action-thrillers making use of his martial arts skills, as well as more serious dramas. His forays into English-language cinema have been few, notably the choreographer in Black Swan and the cat burglar in Ocean's 13. However, he is wasted here. In what passes for character development, we are told the Asset was held hostage in Syria and tortured. But whatever sympathy that was designed to elicit evaporates the second we see him killing civilians left, right, and centre. He is the Big Bad, with no moral gradations.

In the earlier films, Bourne - and the system that created him - existed in a moral grey area. Individuals might be bad or good, but they were all in the same swamp of ambiguity. In The Bourne Identity, another Treadstone assassin (played by Clive Owen), was sent after Bourne. In him we saw that Bourne was not alone, as an agency man trapped in his role. As he died, he said to Bourne: "Look at this. Look what they make you give”. Both men knew that they were victims of the same system. The idea that such men are morally compromised, have doubts, and are psychologically damaged by their work, is the heart of the Bourne character. But here, such nuance has disappeared.

The tone is also changed. There are two big chase sequences: one, on a motorcycle through Athens, is pure Bourne. The other, in Las Vegas, looks like it belongs in Mission Impossible, or another more glitzy action flick. (One driver is even in an armored SWAT vehicle, and the smashing of casinos reminded me of Con-Air, when a plane was landed on the Vegas strip). The earlier Bourne films always avoided glamorous locations. In European cities, the action took place in rail stations or anonymous suburban streets. That gritty realism was part of what gave the films their edge. Glitzy action and a flimsy plot: Jason Bourne deserved better than this.

In my enjoyment of the series, I have wondered about what the future would really hold for Bourne. Since he wants to stay off the grid, he can’t seek legitimate employment or start a business as a security contractor. How, as our net of surveillance grows tighter, does someone really escape? (Especially when you’ve been on an Interpol watchlist for the past decade).

In this film, people talk about Bourne “coming in”, but never say why. To work for them? Face trial? This is unclear. But his return to the nest would at least have been a reason for a final film after such a hiatus. As he gets too old to be scratching at the margins of the cash economy, why not finally decide that the only way out was back to the start? Surely, while beating up Serbian toughs on the Greek border for a handful of sweaty banknotes, the option must have occurred to him. Plot-wise, a story in which his hand were forced—such as finding himself in a foreign jail, or stumbling onto a genuine threat to the USA—could have presented the situation for him to make the choice he’s been avoiding for years.

A film could end with him settling into an office at Langley, with JASON BOURNE (or even DAVID WEBB) on the door. That would have been a better outcome for this troubled but patriotic (and pragmatic) character. Extreme ways indeed.