Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Jason Bourne

Over the course of three movies from 2002-2007, Matt Damon explored the essential question of the Bourne franchise: who is Jason Bourne? Ultimatum gave him (and us) the answer: Jason Bourne is David Webb, a former soldier who volunteered to be a part of Treadstone, a secret organization that essentially turned him into a killing machine. With his identity issues finally solved, the story came to an end...or so we thought.

Jason Bourne
Co-writer/Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Julia Stiles, Vincent Cassel

Damon has reunited with director Paul Greengrass to continue the saga with Jason Bourne, which picks up years later and finds Webb — who I'll call "Bourne" from here on out to make things easy — engaging in underground street fights around the world in order to punch his pain away. He's still haunted by what he's done (his greatest hits are helpfully provided in flashbacks for those who haven't rewatched the trilogy in a while), and when his old Treadstone pal Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) shows up with new information about his father's involvement with the organization, Bourne adopts a new mission: he knows who he is, but now he has to find out the truth about why he volunteered in the first place.

That's easier said than done, of course, because Nicky got her information by hacking into the CIA and the new director (Tommy Lee Jones) and his hotshot young protege (Alicia Vikander) are hot on her trail, sending a new asset (Vincent Cassel) to silence Bourne once and for all. Meanwhile, there's a subplot about the director blackmailing a Zuckerberg-esque tech genius (Riz Ahmed) into giving him a backdoor into his massive social media empire, so the CIA can spy on everyone — ostensibly to protect us from national security threats. Edward Snowden is name-checked once or twice, and the film pays lip service to the now-familiar debate about information, security, and privacy, but without meaningfully adding anything new to the conversation. It's an interesting microcosm of the film itself, which also goes through the motions of something familiar without really bringing anything new to the table.

Does the CIA's mainframe get hacked? Hell yeah! Does Vikander pull up a freeze frame of a blurry video on a screen and say "enhance," resulting in 100% clarity of the image? You bet your ass she does. This film is stuffed with those kinds of cliches, but I'm wondering how many of those cliches began with (or at least proliferated because of) this franchise in the first place. Could one of the original trilogy's biggest impacts on the genre have been normalizing these silly aspects to the point where Jason Bourne is simply a continuation of that level of techno-goofiness, and not just a game of connect-the-dots through all of the genre's worst tendencies? I don't know if I can give the trilogy that much credit, but it's very possible.

But those who loved the first three will find a lot to love about this one, too, because it basically picks and chooses scenes from the trilogy and repurposes them here. In other words: Bourne's gonna Bourne. There are a bunch of brutal hand-to-hand combat fight scenes, assassination attempts, and car chases and foot chases through crowded city streets, all captured with Greengrass's patented shaky cam. It's not as nauseating as it was in Supremacy, but it's still very much his style of choice here. The action escalates to near Fast & Furious levels of absurdity by the time it climaxes in Las Vegas, teetering on the edge of believability in this supposedly grounded cinematic world, but longtime fans of the franchise likely won't mind too much.

Damon is obviously older than the last time we saw him play this part nearly a decade ago, and he struck me as particularly weary here. I'm not sure how much of it is him trying to instill a sense of fatigue in the character and how much of it is him actually being a little tired of playing this role again, but he's talented enough that I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Tommy Lee Jones seems to sleepwalk his way through the first half of this movie, delivering truly bizarre line readings with a sense of inexplicable aloofness. Thankfully, he settles in as the film progresses and does an adequate job of being a sketchy CIA leader. Vikander, whose character seems slightly too young for her position in the agency, doesn't leave much of an impact as an operative intent on bringing Bourne in instead of killing him on sight; she was terrific in Ex Machina last year, but her performance here is unfortunately generic. Cassel, on the other hand, is perfectly cast as the newest asset, and this marks a reunion for him and Damon after Cassel memorably played "The Night Fox" in Ocean's Twelve.

It's tough to rate Jason Bourne on a 1-10 scale. As an action movie, I'd probably give it a 5: it's a serviceable thriller with a couple of decent moments, but it doesn't push the genre forward in any way or even create any iconic set pieces (there's nothing as memorable as Bourne attacking someone with a pen or a rolled up magazine). But as a Bourne movie, it pretty much does what it's supposed to do, and feels very much like a follow-up to Damon's well-liked trilogy. So instead of rating it as a standalone movie, I'll rate this one purely as a Bourne sequel (it tells one long story anyway), and I'll give it an 8 out of 10.

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