Even though it was nine years ago when the third installment of the Bourne series, The Bourne Ultimatum, wrapped things up, evidently there were some who thought there was now more story to tell. It’s almost a decade later and by the conclusion of this fourth and hugely frenetic chapter, the song remains pretty much the same, but with one difference.
The original trilogy centered around an amnesiac trying to solve the puzzle of who he really was; a man who with lightning speed could effectively kill with a few swift martial arts moves and a flick of the wrist but had no clue where the training came from or why. 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum concluded things. The difference with the new episode is that Bourne (Matt Damon) knows his name; he knows who he is, or was, and he knows he wants nothing to do with the world that turned a guy called Webb into an effective CIA killer operative known as Jason Bourne. “I remember,” are Bourne’s opening words. “I remember everything.”
There’s a brief moment of flashback that gives us the opportunity of seeing the late Albert Finney again, but for those new to the Bourne character and the series, these brief, flashy instances can’t bring anyone up to date; they’re more a reminder for those already familiar, the rest will have to pick things up as the new film goes along.
After almost a decade in hiding on the other side of the world, Bourne is drawn back into the clandestine world of spies after a previous contact from The Bourne Ultimatum turns up in the crowd. Nicky (Julia Stiles) has new information and new files regarding CIA secret black ops. There are also files on Bourne and his father, including memos revolving around the truth behind his father’s death. In bleached, over-exposed, stylishly edited flashbacks that are intentionally difficult to comprehend, Bourne pieces together what happened to his father and why. That car bomb was not the work of terrorists, it was a CIA hit. From there, without a moment to breathe let alone think, Bourne returns to the agent he was, running through crowds, avoiding merciless hit men, and doing whatever he can to eventually bring down the man responsible for all the underhanded shenanigans responsible for ruining Bourne’s life, the reprehensible CIA director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). “You don’t know what they did to you,” Nicky tells Bourne amid the ensuing chaos and gun play. “You need to read those files.”
Told with down-to-the-bone economy of dialog where characters talk in brief, clipped sentences – “Bourne has surfaced in Berlin!” “Get the Berlin team!” – Jason Bourne suffers from the same style of presentation that altered the visual tone of the original trilogy once director Paul Greengrass took over.
Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity – a film that for personal tastes remains the best – not only introduced us to the amnesiac assassin but allowed us to savor Bourne’s ability to act fast and fight with alarming speed in full-bodied shots. The way the chase and fight sequences were choreographed and the way Liman shot the film, without lightning speed edits, Damon’s swift moves appeared impressive. Even the European locales and the snow-capped mountainous widescreen scenery became a part of the film. Plus there was the somewhat romantic relationship that developed with Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) with an ending that gave hope for a happy future for the couple. At any given time, you knew where Bourne was in relation to those around him and you could clearly see what he was doing amid the action.
Director Greengrass, working from his own script, has a different style and recreates a different sense of urgency, something learned from his television reporting days with ITV’s World in Action. His hand-held, faux documentary approach to shooting a film worked fine when recreating a real-life event told in close to real time – most notably Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips where his frenzied style recreated a documented you-are-there feel throughout – but with a fictional narrative his relentless in-your-face approach is far less successful. When a single event is the center of the film, the style works, but when there’s a story to be told with plot twists and surprises, it doesn’t.
Rather than enhance the non-stop action, the dazzling edits, the nauseous inducing jerky motions, the zooms and the relentless close-ups work against it. It brings attention to the style and buries whatever tale the film attempts to tell beneath a cacophony of dazzling, head-spinning images. Many like it. Clearly the success of The Bourne Supremacy in 2004 once Liman left the project and its conclusive follow-up, The Bourne Ultimatum, meant there are those who embrace the Greengrass style, but maybe they weren’t sitting in the first ten rows of the theatre where a Greengrass film is virtually unwatchable. It didn’t work for Green Zone in 2010, and it wasn’t the story that was at fault; it was how the film presented it.
Greengrass is only interested in forward motion delivered with an intense sense of urgency. There’s never a chance to take a moment in or to process a plot development; once you’re on board you keep going until the breathless fade out. And unlike Liman’s approach in the original, Greengrass has no time for snow-capped European locales or a personal relationship; you get the impression he doesn’t know how. It’s all about crowds, chaos, fights and lots of shots of concerned CIA agents staring at computer screens and barking orders, including Alicia Vikander as suspiciously ambitious agent Heather Lee. The logistics of putting these scenes together are impressive, but the end result of how it looks is numbing. Plus, there’s an unfortunate sense of timing in the real world that can’t help but damage the film’s climactic chase.
In terms of revenge, at around the hundred minute mark the film is essentially over, but there’s one last knot to be tied and it involves capturing the hitman (Vincent Cassel) responsible for past atrocities. A lengthy, spectacular chase through Las Vegas ensues when the hitman, known only as Asset, steals a police SWAT truck and ploughs through crowds and cars, killing untold numbers of innocent bystanders and tossing wrecked vehicles aside, killing even more. The sequence is meant to top everything you’ve seen before, but it reaches such a ludicrous level of death and destruction, if you haven’t already given up on the non-stop chaos until now, this ridiculous conclusion should do it. Plus, with the recent real-life events of Nice still sadly haunting our minds, somehow watching a truck tearing into crowds loses any sense of value as entertainment.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 123 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)