For lots of movie fans, Matt Damon’s “Bourne” trilogy has always been a bit of a revelation. Director Doug Liman set the stage with “The Bourne Identity” by reconstructing action movie tropes with a strikingly recognizable humanity. Then, in two remarkable follow-ups, director Paul Greengrass hijacked documentarian sensibilities to expand the Bourne universe with a thrilling and somewhat frightening vision; “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” are sterling reflections of post 9/11 anxiety about the security state. All three installments in fact are ridiculously durable and re-watchable; time has diminished very little about the many distinctive set pieces that occur throughout the series.
There’s another, less discussed aspect of this trilogy that’s worth noting too, even though it might be particular to a generation of moviegoers, like myself, who were in our twenties and thirties in the 2000s, when the series ran. The “Bourne” movies found a devoted audience in part because they present a uniquely compelling, if somewhat jaundiced, view of men emerging into adulthood.
The character of course starts off the series almost literally as a blank slate. Narratively he’s beset with amnesia but metaphorically he’s learning what he’s good at, what he can make of himself in the world. His breathtaking competence in negotiating his environment and in overcoming those opposed to him is a commonly relatable fantasy, of course, but what makes him interesting is that he is at odds with his own destructive power and the world that has endowed it upon him. If you’ll forgive for a moment the self-flattery of identifying with a fictional super-spy, this is what the George W. Bush decade felt like for many of us; we experienced power but also helplessness, and we were never fully at ease with the technologically oppressive world we were building.
It’s no accident, either, that the Jason Bourne character’s principle arc across the trilogy is premised on rebellion against a series of father figures—Chris Cooper in the first, Brian Cox in the second, Albert Finney in the third. This is a narrative that resonates deeply with young men trying to make their way in the world; even if we have healthy relationships with our fathers, there is always an element of opposition to the previous generation, rejection of the circumstances that have been handed down to us. It’s also worth noting that there’s also a mother figure of sorts in Joan Allen’s benign CIA officer who shepherds Bourne in the second and third movie; throughout the series his only allies are women.
I mention all of this because the latest sequel in the series, “Jason Bourne,” which returns Damon and Greengrass to the franchise after a nine-year absence, remains in line with this idea of the progression of manhood, but in surprising and disappointing ways. To put it bluntly, it feels like middle age, or at least a weary interpretation of what it feels like to be past youth. Not only is the movie rife with redundancy—it carelessly recycles many ideas and plot devices from its predecessors—but it’s startling regressive in its execution, too. Where the others were taut this one is slack; where they were incisive this one is dumb (and sometimes shockingly so); where they were wildly inventive this one is groaningly obvious; and where they were just exciting and fun this one is just dead boring. It feels like the defeated, exhausted expression of men who have lost the capacity to be genuinely interested in the world, or at least in their work. I’m a year younger than Damon and that’s not the way I feel—which I should be grateful for. I suppose that also explains why watching this movie was so thoroughly heartbreaking for me.