Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jason Bourne (Universal, Captivate Entertainment, Double Negative, Kennedy-Marshall Company, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I ran as our “feature” Jason Bourne, which depending on how you reckon it is either the fourth or the fifth in the current Universal cycle based on Robert Ludlum’s enigmatic character of an amnesiac spy who comes to without any memory of who or what he is, and slowly finds out when some people are ready to give him money, hotel rooms, access to secret bank accounts, etc., while others are trying to kill him. The first film of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, the book in which he introduced the character, was a TV-movie from 1988 starring Richard Chamberlain as Bourne in a film that relatively closely followed Ludlum’s book (at least according to what I’ve heard about it online since I never actually read the book). In 2002 the franchise was revived by Universal and several affiliated production companies as a vehicle for Matt Damon, who repeated the role in sequels called The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). In 2012 they made a film called The Bourne Legacy which, despite the title, didn’t actually feature the Bourne character; instead Jeremy Renner played the lead and he was called “Aaron Cross.” Evidently this was a box-office disappointment, because in 2016 Universal commissioned a new Bourne script from Paul Greengrass (who also directed) and Christopher Rouse and brought Matt Damon back to the role of Bourne for a film originally called The Bourne Resurgence but eventually titled simply Jason Bourne. It’s by far the weakest of the four films in which Damon has played Bourne; it begins with a wild car-chase scene in Athens and ends with a wild car-chase scene in Las Vegas, and in between it’s sort of like a Republic serial updated to the modern world, with bits of boring exposition that only serve to get us from one action highlight to another.

Oh, there are a few bits of the social comment that made earlier films in the Bourne series so interesting — the CIA is posited as having created a number of “Black Operations” departments, including Treadstone (the first one and the one for which Bourne was recruited to be trained as a killer and brainwashed into forgetting his birth name, David Webb, and his original identity), Blackbriar and the current one, Ironclad. The gimmick this time is a Manchurian Candidate-style plot twist in which Bourne’s (or Webb’s, actually) father was the CIA official who actually thought up Treadstone in the first place, only he objected when he found out that unbeknownst to him, the Agency officials in charge of Treadstone recruited his son as a participant — and for his pains he was assassinated by fellow CIA agents, though David Webb a.k.a. Jason Bourne was told his dad had been killed by terrorists and he should go with the program and become a heartless assassin to avenge his father by slaughtering the kinds of people who killed him. All this is masterminded by CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, older than we remember but as twitchy as ever), and in his plot to get rid of Bourne he has the aid of a hired killer known in the film only as “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel) and an assistant named Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), the most interesting character in the film because she seems to have a twisted admiration for Bourne’s skill and resourcefulness and also she’s hoping to bring him back into the program and turn him into a loyal CIA agent again. (This inevitably reminded me of the CIA’s attempts to win back the loyalty of Osama bin Laden in 2000-2001; bin Laden and the nucleus of what became al-Qaeda had worked with U.S. intelligence in the 1980’s to take down the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan, and the CIA’s last approach to bin Laden trying to bring him back was in August 2001, just five weeks before 9/11.) There’s also an intriguing subplot involving a social-media company called “Deep Dream” whose founder, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), was given his seed capital by the CIA, in return for which he’d build back doors into his software so the CIA could spy on Deep Dream users any time they wanted to — and with the new version of his program the CIA believes they’ll be able to maintain 24/7 electronic surveillance literally on everyone in the world. Only Kalloor is rebelling and insisting that he’s going to build privacy safeguards into the new version of Deep Dream so the CIA can’t do that — and director Dewey’s response to that is to order “The Asset” to kill Kalloor at a joint appearance they’re supposed to be making together at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show.

But the writers are so disinterested in the social-comment implications of their plot that when Bourne’s girlfriend Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) literally gives her life in the opening scenes to get him a flash drive containing full accounts of all the CIA’s secret black ops (as I joked, a Bourne girl’s life expectancy is even worse than that of a Bond girl — at least a Bond girl usually gets to stay alive until the end of the movie!), all Bourne cares about is the documents relating to his own past — once he’s seen those he lets the CIA delete the rest of the files by remote control, much to the chagrin of the German hacker (they’re in Berlin — this is one of those movies that flits around the world wherever the producers could get a cool location and a tax break, to precious little dramatic effect) who helped him decrypt the file and wanted to do the Edward Snowden thing (Snowden’s name is actually mentioned twice in the dialogue, and the Blu-Ray disc contains a promo for Oliver Stone’s Snowden biopic) and release the info to the world. There are a few good things about Jason Bourne, including the very long list of stunt doubles — though some computer graphics people are also credited, it’s nice to see a movie these days which relies more on flesh-and-blood stunt people than on CGI for its big action scenes — but for the most part it’s simply dull and unmoving. Bourne was a more interesting character when neither he nor we really knew who he was, and though the ending of Jason Bourne is open-ended in a way that indicates the filmmakers are clearly setting up the possibility of a fifth Bourne/Damon film (Heather Lee tells the CIA’s new director that she still holds open the possibility of bringing Bourne back to the reservation, and then laconically adds that if he refuses “we’ll just have to take him out”), there’s so little life left in the old franchise that one reviewer said this film should have been called The Bourne Redundancy.