Friday, August 12, 2016

Spy movie review: Jason Bourne

It took awhile for me to get around to seeing this. But I finally did, and here's some rambling thoughts...


I'm not a big Jason Bourne fan. While I appreciate their impact on genre cinema (everything from Bond to Batman to frickin' Race to Witch Mountain has been influenced by them), my feelings about the individual entries are a little mixed.

I like Identity. It's a clever, really understated little movie which I enjoy more every time I watch it.  For reasons I still don't quite understand, I dislike Supremacy -- maybe it's just because I never really bought the romance in the original movie, but his girlfriend's death just never felt that impactful. It just doesn't have the emotional hook of the first movie. By contrast, I love Ultimatum. Everything great about the franchise comes together in a terrific bow. It feels like the end of a complete story. While it is more of a tangent, I missed The Bourne Legacy when it came out and I still haven't seen it. 

Based off of how great Ultimatum was, Bourne 5 sounded like a solid prospect for 2016. 

Sorry to tell you guys, but I was a bit disappointed with this one. It turned out to be a bit slack and generic. In a Bourne movie, a franchise built on its gritty hyper-realism and avoidance of genre cliches, those qualities are death.

Instead of previous Bourne movies, this movie reminded me of Rambo III. That's the first thing I thought of when watching the first few minutes of this movie.

Like that sequel, we are re-introduced to a super-buff Bourne trying to seek a life of peace by beating people up for money. Like that movie, we get an old authority figure telling Bourne to recognise and accept what he is. And like that movie, this movie suffers from feeling old-fashioned and kind of listless.

The plot is kind of hard to follow (cue plot spoilers!). Jason Bourne comes out of exile when he is contacted by his CIA ally Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles, completely flat), who has discovered new information on his past. She promptly dies. Cue flashbacks to events and characters we've never seen before. Cue Bourne going after the bad guys. Cue said bad guys, CIA head honcho Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) sending a bunch of nondescript hitmen after him. Meanwhile an internet billionaire is... doing stuff?

I'll be honest, the plot was so boring, there were huge parts where I completely checked out (mostly anything to do with the social network guy).

And the dialogue. CLUNK! So wooden. Everything felt like a first draft. It gets better as the movie progresses, but the dialogue lacks the bite and economy of the previous movies. Scribes Tony Gilroy and George Nolfi are sorely missed.

Like the plots of Captain America 2 and last year's Spectre, the bad guys here are developing a new and nefarious form of cyber-surveillance. It's even less developed here than in those movies. If the movie had been about the CIA using Ironhand (that's its name) to hunt down enemies like Bourne, then maybe it would have felt more like a real threat. As is, it's just another tired plot device.

Paul Greengrass's direction is fine. There are a few points where it is really hard to follow what is going on. Barry Ackroyd's photography, while handheld, does not have the same immediacy as Oliver Wood's work on the previous movies -- it's too clean and glossy.

In terms of action, the set pieces are all over the place, quality-wise.

Bourne and Nikki's escape through a riot is a tad chaotic. There were several points where the camera was so shaky and frenetically edited I could not follow what was going on.

The Las Vegas chase felt contrived and completely out of style with the Bourne aesthetic. It also goes on way too long. The problem is that it feels like an 'action scene', whereas the car chases in previous Bournes felt organic to the story, and relatively 'real'.

The script is the real problem here. This is the first Bourne movie to start shooting with a completed script --whereas the previous movies were assembled through endless reshooting, this was more of a traditional movie shoot, and the lack of endless tinkering really hurts here.

On the plus side, the acting is good. Though the script fails to give him a compelling reason to be back, Matt Damon is still great as Bourne.The main problem is that, apart from Nikki Parsons, we don't get anyone else from the previous movies.

While Bourne is the title character, he's always been a blank, a mystery. It's the ensemble around him that make him feel more interesting.

And not having that supporting cast around (primarily Joan Allen as Pamela Landy) to add colour and shade to his personality, really limits Bourne's impact this time around. It's hard to latch on and invest in his story.


Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander are good additions who slot right into Bourne's world. Jones, in particular, is fantastic as the ultimate villain of the piece. The only downside is that we don't see how he relates to the villains of the previous Bourne movies -- his antagonism with Bourne is based on a relationship we have never seen before. Here, I feel Jones's performance is doing the heavy lifting of making Dewey feel like a genuine threat. Slot anyone else in, and the character would just be another CIA suit.

Vincent Cassel makes an impression as Dewey's chief muscle, an assassin with a grudge against Bourne for exposing the Blackbriar/Treadstone program. He feels the most threatening of Bourne's antagonists, and could have used a little more character development. The way the filmmakers tie him into Bourne's past is incredibly unnecessary, though.

The most interesting character of this new batch is Vikander's Heather Lee. While her American accent pushes credibility, and she is as much a victim of the dialogue as the rest of the cast, she remains extremely interesting to watch. Throughout the movie, Lee's character is extremely ambiguous, with the filmmakers setting up two potential roles she can fit into -- an ice cool CIA cyber-hitman, or a principled egghead (ala Nikki Parsons) who sees the light. Vikander manages to ride this line without ever tipping her hand. If the movie had paid more attention to this character and her relationship with Dewey and Bourne, this movie could have been great.

The ending tries to make a twist of her character's final allegiances, but like Jones, Vikander is a strong performer who can paper over the script's limitations in a credible way. If a lesser performer had played her role, it may have felt horribly contrived.

Final verdict? A boring script and overly polished execution dull Bourne's natural excitement. Since his story was completed nine years ago, the filmmakers needed to provide a strong reason for his return. On that count, they flubbed it.

While it's not terrible, in the end Jason Bourne is far too pedestrian and boring to recommend.

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