When The Bourne Legacy was released in 2012, the one thing missing from it, many people said, was Matt Damon. Well, the one thing missing from Jason Bourne, the latest instalment in the series, is Tony Gilroy. I liked Legacy and I liked Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross. It was a variation on the original theme and one that actually presented an interesting way forward for the series with its scarily plausible exploration of black-ops chemical enhancement. But the films in the main trilogy – Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum – have a different focus and very much belong together. They’re like concentric circles, each following a strict formula, while at the same time expanding (and concluding) the overarching narrative of Bourne’s origins and amnesia. The new film, Jason Bourne, follows this strict formula very closely, but it has two problems. First, what it adds to the overarching narrative is superfluous and strains credulity – it just doesn’t feel organic. We craved another instalment in a series that was already over and this was probably the inevitable price we were going to have to pay for it. The second problem wasn’t inevitable at all and could easily have been avoided. How? I can’t know this for certain, of course, but I strongly suspect that if Tony Gilroy had been involved at a script level, the film wouldn’t have this particular problem.
Which is . . . Jason Bourne doesn’t have any of those carefully-constructed instances where Bourne is busily thinking a few steps ahead of the audience and setting up an ingenious pay-off “moment” – opening the gas and stuffing the magazine into the toaster, for example, in Supremacy. When he’s walking away from the house and it explodes behind him, we experience what I guess can only be called a Bournegasm. Or in the Madrid safehouse, in Ultimatum, when he calls the cops in perfect Spanish and heads off the approaching back-up team so that he and Nicky can escape. Or those moments where Bourne’s heightened instincts kick in and he can see what is imminent – at the farmhouse near the end of Identity, for example, when he registers what the missing dog means. Or those moments when other people suddenly realize just what it is they’re dealing with: when Nicky Parsons says, “They don’t make mistakes”, or Noah Vosen sees the grainy CCTV stream and says, “Jesus Christ, that’s Jason Bourne.”
It is these sequences and moments (and many others) that make the Bourne movies not only watchable but eminently re-watchable, because they set up a very satisfying rhythm of anticipation. They also distinguish Bourne from other action heroes, because they illustrate that he is considerably more than just an action hero: he is a smart upgrade of the genre. And the main point here is that these sequences and moments don’t happen by accident. They’re constructed and written, and they are essential to the success of the series. Unfortunately, Jason Bourne really doesn’t have any of these moments at all – not a single proper, self-respecting Bournegasm. I can’t ever see myself wanting to watch the movie again, whereas I would happily re-watch any of the others at the drop of a hat. The first four Bourne movies were written by Tony Gilroy. The fifth one wasn’t. I think this tells us something.