Saturday, 6 August 2016

Why would he come back now?

Jason Bourne
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The Bourne Jasonity, as it is also known, makes one wonder a bit. Did the added luxury of time, notably absent from the pressure-cooker production schedule of the previous Greengrass-Damon Bourne efforts, ultimately have a negative effect on the end result? Does Bourne need conflict and up-against-it difficulties to make something special (there were copious reshoots on Identity too, of course)? Because Jason Bourne isn’t anything special. It’s a serviceable thriller, but as a Bourne movie, and the high standards by which the series is rightly judged, it’s something of a disappointment.


Which leads one to doubly question the wisdom of blowing the cobwebs off Damon’s most iconic role, and leading the faulty-memory man, greying of temples but even more relentless of physique, back into the fray. I haven’t rewatched it since, so I may come up with a different response when I do, but on first impressions the much maligned The Bourne Legacy is a more interesting picture than this one, for all the derided greens and blues and the failure of Jeremy Renner (not really his fault) to fashion Aaron Cross into an effective replacement black ops operative.


Perhaps the greatest failure of Jason Bourne (and that title, so utterly lacking in creativity or enthusiasm, sadly reflects the final product) is its inability to exert a relentless pace, a driving plot that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, compelled to push on to whatever may happen next. While there are individually superior set pieces, up to the standards of the series’ past achievements, there is little sense of cumulative, wholer vitality running through the this third/fourth sequel. This is most clear in the piecemeal fashion by which Greengrass and Christopher Rouse have failed to fashion a narrative justifying the re-emergence of the former David Webb.


To wit, he has now been retrofitted with a father in charge of the project, to give Bourne a measure of personal investment, the kind of unnecessary retooling we have also (bizarre to draw this comparison, but symptomatic of studios struggling to feign validation for milking every penny out of a potential or moribund franchise) seen this summer in Finding Dory. More damaging is the dogged desire to be topical, since it is manifested in an almost out-of-touch, dodderingly parental fashion, contrasting to the manner in which such material appeared germane, vital and congruent when addressed in previous pictures.


Greengrass and Damon want to address the surveillance state, but do they have anything to say about it? Not when they come out and say it, no. When they show it, in terms of the added weight that can be brought to bear on tracking Bourne at every turn, it’s incredibly potent (not just watching him, but wiping his secrets-laden laptop simply by hacking a nearby cell phone). When they say it, or overtly plot it, all resonance crumbles. Snowden is name-checked, but if feels like weak bandwagon jumping rather than keen understanding.


There’s the Google-type head of Deep Dream (Riz Ahmed as Aaron Kalloor), whose software/platform has been compromised from the get-go, but is now having qualms about further prospective intrusiveness, which frankly seems like a limp plotline set in motion after the horse has bolted. Bourne should be cynically assuming any and all means of access are already in place, whatever protests service provides offer in the media, and that a head of company doesn’t need to be on board for the intelligence services to have all the access they want. It’s a problem when you get a conspiracy-minded movie that is too level-headed for its audience, that ought to push the conspiratorial aspect further because it isn’t credulous enough. No one would be surprised any more.


It’s also there in the balanced-but-unenticing debate over the push-pull of state surveillance in aid of fighting the forces of darkness (the results are no more than the average media think piece comes up with in terms of rigour). How much is the construct of the argument justified and how much is it manufactured, might be a more provocative place to come from, rather than the lightly poised indifference of Bourne or the judiciously dismissive riposte of Tommy Lee Jones’ CIA Director Dewey, responding to Kalloor’s qualms.


It doesn’t help matters that this plotline barely intersects with Bourne’s mission, at least until the Vegas-set finale, further reinforcing the sense that the movie has been awkwardly built upon a shopping list of elements the makers are seeking to address (or pay lip service to) in order to demonstrate their passionate social consciences, rather than in the service of a clearly defined tale that “needs” to be told.


Greengrass is on firmer ground when referencing the financial crisis obliquely, setting Bourne’s flight from the limelight against a backdrop of Greek unrest (it can be no coincidence either that Nicky Parsons is pulling off her Snowden hack from Iceland, the country that most instantly and overtly suffered fallout from the crisis, and also seen to be one of the few willing to actually prosecute anyone over it). Really, though, this is symptomatic of a movie casting a wide net and coming up short of even a light haul. There’s a would-be assassination at the climax, the blame to rest on a lone Iraqi gunman, and the old corrupt CIA regime is replaced by a new corrupt CIA regime, but Greengrass is unable to summon any drama, urgency or immediacy from the intrigues. 


Of Bourne himself, Matt is dependably grim-faced and taciturn, but the attempts to motivate the character don’t entirely convince. Bourne doesn’t, it appears, now remember everything (like Dory, it comes back to him in carefully apportioned chunks, as the plot demands). There’s an attempt to seed the idea that he might return to the agency, to come home, right up to the point where he pulls a Pamela Landy-esque reveal on new head of operations Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), but we’re not really falling for it.


The more powerful motivating force, never really picked up on, is the pointless, perfunctory killing off of Julia Stiles’ Nicky (I expected this, as that’s just the sort of thing they would do, and the trailers seemed to be very sequential about her involvement), but it gives him no impetus whatsoever (perhaps they thought it would be too much of a rehearsal of Supremacy, or Lethal Weapon 2 before it, but it’s much worse that Bourne seems entirely unaffected). Nicky is dispatched with kind of incidental disregard reserved for Paddy Considine’s journalist in Ultimatum, ignoring that she had survived as the only other constant in the series besides the title role. It’s not a case of not killing off beloved characters, but at least make it matter.


So Bourne is left doing stuff because he’s Bourne, pretty much, thrown the spectre of a persuasive parental force (Gregg Henry, a good fit facially) and an antagonist who is… laughable. Not that Vincent Cassel doesn’t play him with commendable conviction (if ever they want someone to play Rod Hull in an Emu biopic, he’s a shoe-in), but anyone alarmed at the suspension of disbelief required for Legacy’s lead’s drugs of choice will have a field day with a character who makes it his mission to create as much collateral damage as unfeasibly possible on any given assignment. Most risibly – the kind of thing you worried Star Trek Beyond was angling towards with its crashed starship but recovered from by making it integral – Cassel’s Asset is not only bent on revenge against Bourne for exposing him (and in so doing getting him tortured) as a result of the info dump in Ultimatum (Bourne’s like Snowden see, traitor or hero, depending on your perspective; not so clever that), he’s also the guy who put paid to pappy all those years back.


This is the kind of rudimentary plotting that makes you rather wish they’d made things up on the fly; under a show of hands they’d all surely have gone “Nah, no one would buy that, too convenient” rather than going through a drawn-out discussion where they convinced themselves it was not only acceptable but even a good idea. Also aboard with the pervading sense of unwelcomely familiar tropes is Tommy Lee Jones playing Tommy Lee Jones for the umpteenth time in a Tommy Lee Jones-through-and-through hard-ass authority figure role. There’s precious little point clearing the decks of previous characters if you then go and replenish stocks with ones even more stock.


On the plus side, Alicia Vikander is really good as Lee, striking an impenetrably ambivalent tone that turns out to be all about climbing the career ladder and nothing to do with what’s best for her country (or Bourne). Scott Shepherd, who made a lot from a little in last year’s Bridge of Spies, is unable to repeat the miracle as National Intelligence Director Russell, while Riz Ahmed is also defeated by slipshod characterisation (the last we see of him is a face palm moment where he informs the media he will not further divulge the cancer at the heart of Deep Dream, as if the most elementary guesswork couldn’t reach a conclusion).


And what of the action? Bourne indulging bare knuckle boxing, taking out opponents in a single punch, is what we want to see, the instinctive machine mind that knows what to do in any given scenario, and the early conflagration in Greece, as he appropriates a police motorcycle and avoids protesters, police, CIA personnel and the Asset is thrillingly coordinated. Later in London, his subterfuges enabling a meeting with a surveillance operative (Bill Camp) are also the stuff of classic Bourne lateral thinking.


Unfortunately, the final car chase along the Vegas strip fails to live up to Diamonds Are Forever. The preceding piece of Bourne play, as he bursts into the convention hall (holding a debate on privacy rights) and distracts the Asset, is far superior. Whose bright idea was it to have a SWAT vehicle up against a Dodge Charger, as the altercation never feel other than silly? It’s partially saved by a superlatively brutal fight in a tunnel between the two veteran operatives, but Bourne isn’t a series that satisfies through being glass half full.


The picture I most came away thinking off was not prior Bournes but the previous damp squib collaboration between Damon and Greengrass, Green Zone, a movie with many commendable elements, but ultimately stymied by its desire to be pertinent, relevant and laudable, and which arrived virtually obsolete as a result of such misconceived diligence. For all that Greengrass can be fired up and propulsive in his political conscience (Bloody Sunday) he can equally come across as slickly superficial (Captain Phillips). I’d have taken slickly superficial in Jason Bourne, or just plain slick. Honestly, it might have been more interesting, all told, to have seen that second Aaron Cross movie, with the promise of Justin Lin at the helm (particularly given Lin’s work on the recent Star Trek movie). I know, I know, I’ll just keep popping those Greens and Blues.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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