Director: Paul Greengrass / Writer: PG + Christopher Rouse / DoP: Barry Ackroyd / Editor: Christopher Rouse
Cast: Matt Damon / Tommy Lee Jones / Alicia Vikander / Vincent Cassel / Julia Stiles / Riz Ahmed
For a while there, Paul Greengrass (‘PG’) was the hottest director in Hollywood, for what he brought to his genre-of-choice: Action. Thanks to a background directing gritty ‘documentary-style’ TV in his native UK, he was a perfect fit to take on the Bourne franchise after Doug Liman – the director of the first movie – stepped back from the camera to produce. PG’s speciality lay then as now, in using a handheld camera to put the audience front and centre, with an immediacy not possible with traditional set-ups. Couple this, with a choppy editing style, that broke shots into chunks little more than three or four seconds long and a new ‘herky-jerky’ cinematic language evolved, going on to influence a new wave of emerging directors, who would adopt his style for their own projects. Don’t believe me? Consider anything from Marvel Studios in the years since Bourne Ultimatum and tell me PG’s influence wasn’t a factor! Or Transformers? Even Bond – the Granddaddy of them all – wasn’t averse to a little handheld, fast-cutting action in Casino Royale: that’s how pervasive PG’s style had become by that point.
In the nine years since Ultimatum’s release, PG had delivered Green Zone & Captain Phillips – fine movies, both – but for his next trick, the Bourne producers were dangling a particularly juicy carrot: another sequel, albeit lacking the usual script from Tony Gilroy. Despite writing – and directing – the misfiring spinoff Bourne Legacy, Gilroy had no interest in returning to a character who’s story arc was already complete; there was no need to ‘reboot’ the franchise, but you know: it’s Hollywood. So Matt Damon signed-on to return (and as a headline producer this time around) with PG attached to direct and write a story, that looked at how Bourne was living nine years-on: it’s in that world, that we find him.
So. The stage is set. We open on a dust-blown location ‘on the Greek-Albanian border’ where Bourne’s now earning a meagre coin as a bareknuckle boxer (though on this evidence he’s quite, err, handy?). It’s a sequence that could’ve been set anywhere and achieves little that couldn’t have been told later, with more economy and grace. You might say, that’s the problem with this picture in a nutshell.
Nicky (the stalwart Julia Stiles) had been his CIA ‘conscience’ from the original film onwards, but now appears to be out of The Agency and doing her thing as an ‘agitator for social freedom’ or something equally nebulous. Still, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and go with it. She’s in Reykjavik as it turns out and gets herself into a warehouse that’s been re-purposed as a hacker’s frathouse. Once inside, she opens an encrypted memory stick, on which sits a folder listing several project codewords – of which the last – Treadstone – happens to be Bourne’s alma-mater.
As Nicky assesses what’s in the folder, her laptop notifies CIA HQ that this secret drive is now active. We see lots of the usual widescreen wall-panels showing spy satellite & CCTV feeds, while an array of geeks in shirt and tie, scramble ‘to shut it down’. This effort is led by one Heather Lee ((‘HL’) Alicia Vikander who surely came to this role for its potential to extend the franchise (kerching!) than for any depth in its writing). I was unconvinced by her character from the off: she’s what, in her mid-Twenties, yet she heads the CIA’s ‘Cyber Security’ team? Err, no. Sorry, Mr. Greengrass, but no. Nada. Not buying it for a second. That’s not how things work: for a start, she’s simply too young to have amassed the political nous necessary, to have navigated the waters and end-up there, ‘Cyber blah-blah’ or not.
Still, Mister Gee, remember that this is just a movie, so let that pass and cut-to-the-chase: the warehouse’s power is cut remotely, Nicky’s back on the lam and HL’s feeling smug when she meets her boss, Director Dewey ((‘DD) the curmudgeonly, droll Tommy Lee Jones). Talk about ‘old school’, this is going from the ‘too young’ to the ‘too old’. No question that TLJ’s got charisma, gravitas and dignity, but he’s miscast here. Not only is he too old for this part, but DD’s got too many skeletons in his cupboard to have made CIA Director: and some of them are still rattling, as we’re about to find out…
Enter The Asset (the charismatic French actor Vincent Cassel as a driven, psychopathic hitman), who’s directed by DD to eliminate both Nicky and Bourne in Athens; top spy-craft has located them both in the city. There’s a riot going-on when they meet, so The Agency spies watching them, both on the ground and back at Langley HQ have their work cut-out, to follow them: not easy, given Bourne is quick to realise that he and Nicky are now targets themselves.
What really impressed me here, is how PG corralled this extended sequence, as The Asset chases down Bourne & Nicky. PG shows considerable skill in capturing a realistic slice of chaotic frenzy which, given the austerity-fuelled civil unrest in Greece in recent years, feels at times to be a documentary, rather than fiction; Mr. Greengrass was made to shoot this kind of material: a director of slow-paced, period-drama, he certainly is not!
Less impressive, is the reappearance of the old teal and orange colour grading that I complained about so vocally in Mad Max: Fury Road. Here, PG bathes the fiery streets of Athens in the (duh) orange, contrasting with a cold, dispassionate teal in CIA HQ. I understand that these colour choices are deliberate, in order to achieve a certain look and induce mood, but do they have to be so marked, as here? I came away feeling that PG could’ve made smarter choices on that account and, as this lengthy sequence played-out, with JB & Nicky being chased on their stolen motorcycle, by The Asset in a VW Golf, I began to fidget; my attention, to wander.
The rest of the film plays itself out with another, more ambitious chase in Las Vegas (yawn), a tepid sub-plot featuring the excellent Riz Ahmed as Aaron Kapoor, a tech billionaire not unlike Mark Zuckerberg, whose startup ‘Deep Dream’ was part-funded by DD (unlike Zuckerberg’s Facebook, one assumes?). In the final cut, Kapoor’s only purpose seems to be that of a foil to expose DD’s cover-ups and his continuing use of The Asset; such a waste of a talented character, who in the absence of Nicky, might’ve been rounded-out to buddy-up with Bourne – but that’s what happens in an alternative universe. In THIS one, we get another couple of fighty-bits – one in Paddington (of all places) and another in Berlin. With a skinhead. Possessing the bluest eyes ever seen; God, I hope they’re real. Why Bourne was fighting him there in the first place, has been lost to memory, along with the second half of the picture, which is a real shame, given both PG’s and the franchise’s pedigree. Maybe Jason just wanted to use his AirMiles…
Jason Bourne might be a bigger picture, but it isn’t a clever picture. Damon’s character is only required to survive two (okay, two-and-a-half) chases and stick around long enough to put HL into pole position as his new ‘frenemy’. That’s it. Even its (few) fight sequences, lack the resourcefulness we’ve seen before (rolled-up magazine, anyone?).
Another theme conspicuously absent, is Bourne’s interactions with other people. In the previous trilogy, his character had an on-off relationship with Franka Potente’s Marie, which grounded his character and motivated him to protect her. As viewers, we were rooting for what he was trying to achieve, against the odds. There’s none of that here. PG has stripped-away everything that might have given us a new reason to cheer Bourne-on from the sidelines. To compound the problem, the film’s grander scope and budget (endless night shoots aren’t cheap) leave Bourne as a bit-player reacting, not responding, to events as they unfold.
As I mentioned earlier, Bourne’s too competent these days and the jeopardy he finds himself in, too unreal. Even when he falls from a rooftop and collides with a power cable to break his fall, there’s not even a broken rib… Worse, he’s then SHOT in the BELLY by DD and still has enough vim to go mano-a-mano with The Asset! His bête-noir. His Black Spot. The guy who’s been on his case since the first reel. And yet, at the time this film was made, Matt Damon had crept into his mid-forties. I wanted Bourne to be struggling with the realities – and compromises – of advancing middle age, not THIS. Bond is the superhero, Bourne was supposed to be a higher-functioning mortal.
Matt Damon is fine in the role, but the material he has to parse for meaning is so thin to begin with, that for much of the picture, he’s not getting out of first gear. And he’s a Producer! I’m sure PG included all the stuff about Papa Bourne and his involvement in Treadstone’s formation, to give motivation to the quest, but this was never resolved, either. Jason learnt his real name nine years earlier. Why wait this long to dig-up dirt on his Dad? Moreover, what will that solve anyway? Don’t play the ‘peace of mind’ card either, as the only peace this character’s likely to have, is when the producers finally administer the coup-de-grace which, after this one, they might be tempted so to do.
There’s no question that PG is a talented, visionary director, but the writing here – even the story’s very premise – was too arid to hold me. The project would’ve been better served, had more time been found for another writer to get their teeth into the property, leaving PG free to reinvent his style of film-making and startle us all once again. As tends to be the case however, I suspect that the key players had other commitments pencilled-in and it was a case of ‘now or never’… On reflection, after a second viewing, I think this picture even inferior to Legacy and that’s saying something. So it’s true, then: You really can revisit the well once too often.
Bourne (holding a gun to Dewey’s chest): I’m trying to find another way.
Dewey: Huh! And how’s that working out for you?