Home > Reviews > JASON BOURNE – John Powell and David Buckley

JASON BOURNE – John Powell and David Buckley

jasonbourneOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Jason Bourne is the latest film in the series of action-espionage films based on the novels by Robert Ludlum, after the original Bourne Identity in 2002, The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007, and the spin-off Bourne Legacy in 2012. Paul Greengrass returns to the director’s chair and Matt Damon returns to play one of his iconic roles one more time; this time, the plot revolves around Bourne, a former CIA assassin, finding out more about his past, how he was first recruited into the ultra-secret black ops Treadstone programme in the first place, and how these things relate to the death of his father. The film co-stars Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Bourne veteran Julia Stiles, Vincent Cassel, and Riz Ahmed, and allows Bourne to trek across the globe from Athens to Berlin to London and Las Vegas, as he searches for answers about his past.

Unfortunately, despite handsome production values and committed lead performances, Jason Bourne is a bust: the flimsy plot is built around seemingly endless scenes of ‘dramatic walking’, interspersed with car chases through narrow alleyways, shockingly brutal fight sequences, and surveillance scenes where people stand in rooms filled with enormous monitors screaming technobabble about assets and “getting eyes on the target” at faceless technicians. It’s exactly the same as all the previous Bourne films – which I guess is the point, if you want to appeal to the same target demographic – but at this point, it’s all getting rather boring and predictable. The stunts are impressive enough, but the camera never stops moving and may induce motion sickness in the unprepared, while the ADD film editing is expressly aimed at people with an attention span of less than three seconds.

John Powell completely changed the way modern action films are scored with his score for the original Bourne Identity, ushering the genre away from theme-driven orchestral scores and into a world where electronic-acoustic hybrid textures and dance music-like pulses and beats dominate. It’s easy to forget that Powell was not the original choice of composer for that score – he was a late replacement for Carter Burwell, whose original score was thrown out by director Doug Liman so late in the day that some of the publicity material, and even the trailer credits, featured Burwell’s name. I’m not sure Powell intended to write an iconic score which inspired so many poor imitations – in fact, he once apologized to me in person for doing so! – but his legacy was cemented once the original movie became a smash hit, and everyone else wanted to emulate its sound. As such, it’s unsurprising that Jason Bourne should follow the formula so closely, but it is somewhat disappointing that there should be so little innovation or development from the man whose music defines the genre.

As was the case with all the previous scores in the series, Jason Bourne is a score all about movement: pulsing, throbbing, rhythmic ideas which bubble and churn endlessly for over an hour. Considering the nature of the film, Powell and his co-composer David Buckley were clearly tasked with upping the energy levels to such an extent that a scene of a man calmly walking from his office building to a meeting in a pleasant fountain-filled plaza, while two other men calmly follow him at a safe distance, can seem breathlessly exciting. Heck, if I had this music accompanying me as I went about my business, my daily stroll from the parking lot to my desk would seem just as epic and important. On the one hand, this is a perfect example of the power of film music: without Powell’s tension filled strings and rattling electronics, it would simply be that – a scene of a man calmly walking from his office to a meeting. However, with Powell’s music behind it, the walk seems fraught with danger, assassins and kidnappers around every corner, with the walker nervously glancing around him, knowing his life is in danger. It creates the perfect mood, and makes the threat palpable.

On the other hand – and more importantly, from the perspective of this review – the music just isn’t especially interesting. Extended cues like “Converging in Athens,” “Motorcycle Chase,” “Decrypted,” “Paddington Plaza,” “Following the Target,” and others, are filled with hyper-kinetic pulses and rhythms, often built around a chugging 16th note cello cadence that repeats over and over as the baseline on which the rest of the instruments are hung. Powell and Buckley then make use of various brass chords which fade in and out, echoing and tinkling electronic whizzes, layers of percussion ideas both traditional and metallic, and elongated sustains in the strings, to add depth and texture to the music. While it’s certainly easy to commend the technical expertise and excellence required to create music with this level of detail, I personally found myself getting tired with it very quickly.

The only notable thematic idea comes via the recurring woodwind texture that Powell has used since day one to depict the haunted, lonely quality of Bourne’s existence, and the various specters of his past as he discovers them. It appears in “I Remember Everything,” very subtly in parts of “Flat Assault,” even more subtly during the somber and solemn opening moments of “Strip Chase,” and during the conclusive “Let Me Think About It”. Every once in a while the score will slow down and breathe, and in these moments it embraces simple string chords, more metallic percussive ideas, and moody industrial-edged textures. Conversely, cues like “White Van Plan” and the second half of “Strip Chase” feature darker, even more aggressive electronic hits and loops, insinuating an even greater threat than usual.

However, for me, the score’s entire problem is in its lack of specificity, and its almost complete lack of emotional content. The tracks run into one another with no delineation, the different scenes show no geographic specificity or indication of anything relating to location to differentiate one from the other, and worst of all is the fact that the whole thing just sits on the surface of the film, offering no subtext or nuance. Relationships are not explored, and degrees of emotional content are overlooked. The whole thing simply follows Bourne: is Bourne running? Play the action music. Is Bourne walking quickly? Play the action music again. Is Bourne driving something really fast? Play the action music once more. Has Bourne stopped doing those things for a minute? Play the less bombastic version of the action music at a slower tempo. It seems remarkably simplistic, especially considering the level of sophistication Powell has shown in so many other scores.

Perhaps the most telling criticism of the score is the fact that the most interesting track on the album, by a quite significant margin, is the new remix of the Moby song “Extreme Ways,” which has played over the end credits of all the Bourne films to date. The new remix takes the familiar song and adds a level of dynamism and creativity that I wish the score had featured, with a soaring contrapuntal string accompaniment, a more prominent percussion section, and gospel-esque choral accents, enhancing the existing dance-music rhythms and Moby’s iconic vocal performance to excellent effect.

In one of the sadder events in recent years, John Powell’s wife, photographer Melinda Lerner, died of a bone-marrow related disease in March 2016 at the age of just 56. In the years preceding this score Powell had made a conscious decision to move away from the violence-filled action music that launched his career, and instead concentrated on writing lush, fun-filled music for a series of animated films, notably in the How to Train Your Dragon, Rio, and Ice Age series. He had said in interviews several times that he didn’t want to score films that glorified violence for violence’s sake any more, and preferred to write music that was joyful and optimistic, but he was apparently drawn back to Bourne during his wife’s illness because of his connection to the series, and his familiarity with the character, calling it “a nice distraction”. Powell was still working on Jason Bourne when Melinda died, which probably explains why David Buckley was brought in to be a co-composer to take some of the strain away, and is also perhaps why – entirely understandably –it doesn’t seem as though Powell’s heart was completely in it.

With those mitigating circumstances in mind, to me Jason Bourne feels competent, workmanlike, and consistent with the rest of the music in the Bourne series, but is missing that spark of inspiration that would allow it to rise out of the pit with the literally dozens of other scores that were written as a pale imitation of Bourne in the wake of the first score. Without that level of John Powell magic, sadly, it comes across as little more than a facsimile, rather than an original.

Buy the Jason Bourne soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • I Remember Everything (2:08)
  • Backdoor Breach (3:56)
  • Converging in Athens (4:20)
  • Motorcycle Chase (8:57)
  • A Key to the Past (1:42)
  • Berlin (2:02)
  • Decrypted (5:32)
  • Flat Assault (2:50)
  • Paddington Plaza (6:48)
  • White Van Plan (2:48)
  • Vegas Arrival (2:50)
  • Following the Target (2:48)
  • Strip Chase (5:48)
  • An Interesting Proposal (2:10)
  • Let Me Think About It (2:26)
  • Extreme Ways [Jason Bourne Remix] (written by Richard Hall, performed by Moby) (4:55)

Running Time: 61 minutes 24 seconds

Back Lot Music (2016)

Music composed by John Powell and David Buckley. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Tommy Laurence and Geoff Lawson. Additional music by Batu Sener. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Peter Myles. Album produced by John Powell and David Buckley.

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  1. Mark Walker
    August 2, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Spot on Jon, you’ve nailed it with this review, put my unformed thoughts into the right words to sum up exactly how I felt about both movie and score. You’ve also explained the very understandable reasons why Powell may not have been as motivated as before and why Daivd Buckley stepped in — though my impression was that they could just have easily tracked the entire movie with the earlier Bourne scores and it would have made no difference, so “generic” is much of the scoring for this movie. But as a huge fan of Powell (as well as of the previous Bourne scores) I’m confident that we will continue to hear great things from him for many years to come.

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