Friday, 19 August 2016

Jason Bourne

Let me begin with a few reminders, which regular readers have seen here before:

  1. I like Matt Damon.
  2. I like intelligent spy thrillers.
  3. I like conspiracy thrillers.
  4. I’m a fan of The Bourne Identity and enjoyed the two sequels (though I did NOT appreciate Paul Greengrass’s style and the increasing emphasis on action versus story).
  5. I believe the single greatest threat to ‘public safety’ and to the life of every human being on the planet (not counting climate change), and possibly the greatest evil in the history of humanity (yes, more evil than Stalin or Hitler or ISIS), is the Central Intelligence Agency, so I’m a fan of any film that exposes and condemns the evil and inherent corruption of the CIA (or the NSA, etc.).
  6. I’m a HUGE admirer of whistleblowers of any kind; it’s the CIA and NSA, etc. which are guilty of treason (against the human race, the only nation state I recognize), not the whistleblowers who expose the horrific actions of these secretive agencies.

Okay, now let’s take a look at Jason Bourne, the fourth Matt Damon Bourne film and the third directed by Paul Greengrass (who also co-wrote this film). Like its predecessors, Jason Bourne is a conspiracy spy thriller about exposing and condemning the CIA, though it’s never clear whether the Bourne films are condemning the CIA as such or just certain corrupt individuals who work for (and usually lead) the CIA. 

Jason Bourne begins with Bourne’s friend and former colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), hacking into the CIA’s computer system and copying all of its black-ops files, including one on Treadstone, which recruited and trained assassins (called assets) like Bourne. Parsons wants to put this information online so that everyone will know just how awful the CIA really is, and she solicits Bourne’s help, but Bourne doesn’t agree with Parsons’ goals and is more interested in what the Treadstone file reveals about the complicity of his father, Richard (Gregg Henry), in the Treadstone project. 

Meanwhile, back in Langley, the CIA has detected the hacking, thanks to the work of the brilliant and ambitious Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). The CIA’s current director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), is rightfully in a panic. But he’s got a second panic-inducing situation on his plate: Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the founder of the new Deep Dream computer platform, is threatening to expose the CIA’s plans to use Deep Dream as part of a project to monitor every person on the planet (doesn’t get more Big Brother than that, and I believe the CIA and NSA are working on exactly such a project). So we’ve got two whistleblowers on the loose and Bourne caught in the middle (with a CIA asset, played by Vincent Cassel, hunting Bourne down in revenge for Bourne’s role in exposing him many years before). 

Because of the CIA-exposure elements of the plot, I was actually more engaged in the action (which still completely, and inexcusably, dominates the film) than in the previous two films, at least until the final twenty minutes or so, when double-revenge nonsense leads to a ridiculous car chase scene that all but ruins the entire film. Not that there weren’t other flaws, like the role played by the completely unnecessary new information about Bourne’s secretive background, involving his father. Of course, without that part of the story there is precious little plot to play with, which is my biggest complaint of the last three Bourne films (give me the complex plots of most British spy thrillers, like those penned by John le CarrĂ©, anytime). Then there are the unbelievable and uninformed computer and technology antics that make the CIA look much more competent than it is. And someone forgot to give the writers the memo about how the main reason Vic likes the Bourne films is because they are set almost entirely in Europe (Jason Bourne spends far too much of its time in Las Vegas). 

But there are also positive and discussable things about Jason Bourne. Damon IS Jason Bourne and he displays an ever-greater sense of the inner turmoil constantly experienced by his character, though in some ways Bourne is less sympathetic in this film. Vikander does an excellent job and Jones is always fun to watch. The question is: exactly how good or evil are the characters they play? Is Lee, like Pamela Landy in the previous two films, a woman with more of a conscience than her coldhearted male boss, wanting to help Bourne and to challenge her agency’s evil actions, or is SHE the coldhearted person trying to use Bourne to get rid of her boss and become director herself (as someone in my family suggested, though I prefer the former interpretation)? Is Dewey, meanwhile, a coldhearted killer protecting the CIA at all costs and planning ever greater evils, or is he a man put in an insanely stressful position struggling to do what’s best for his country (and for the world, in his mind)? 

And what about the Bourne series suddenly trying to be topical, with whistleblowers, computer platforms, invasive surveillance in the name of security, riots in Greece, etc. (the previous films were somewhat timeless in their focus on Bourne’s survival as he searches for the truth about his past)? Were the filmmakers simply wanting to make Jason Bourne more appealing to a new generation of filmgoers (the millennials) or were they using the film to express their views on the myriad dangers of surveillance and organizations like the CIA (I prefer the latter response)? 

Many questions and, as usual, many mixed messages. For example, there is a hint early on that Bourne is mortified by the violent actions the CIA has caused him to undertake and there is the suggestion that he just wants to be a man of peace. Except he’s making his living by fighting people and, when encouraged by Lee to “stop it now” instead of continuing on his path of violent revenge, he of course ignores her, and the filmmakers seem to support his decision (if for no other reason than because it gives them the opportunity for a mindless car chase and another fight). 

Despite being a nonstop-action film, our discussion (argument?) after viewing Jason Bourne was more animated than for most films we have seen this year, and just look at the length of this review! That’s not a bad thing. So Jason Bourne gets a solid *** (personally, I liked it better than Ultimatum, its critically-acclaimed predecessor, and, prior to that ridiculous chase at the end, was planning to award it ***+). My mug is up, but go in with low expectations.

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