Sunday, July 31, 2016

Bourne Watch: Jason Bourne (2016)

This is my fourth Bourne movie, and with about 9 years between The Bourne Ultimatum and Jason Bourne (2016), a lot has changed in the world and in movies.  You'd be hard pressed not to find an action movie not taking something from Paul Greengrass's energetic direction and tracking camera shots.  It's something I'm maybe too aware of when I watch something like Captain America: Civil War, when they go in for some "authenticity", or at least a particular feel to the action in the Lagos scenes - that "we're on an espionage mission, so the camera needs to be shakey" look to the proceedings comes right out of these movies.

But as a character in film, Bourne was always a bit flat, a bit two dimensional.  He was the hero who was complex not by what he did, necessarily, but by virtue of the background given him.  Then he proceeded to act like a fairly standard-issue guy-in-a-white-hat action hero.  Matt Damon did a lot to make the character likable, and when you're one guy against the CIA, there's a lot to root for.

The first three films contained the plot of what might have been in a single film if the Bourne movies weren't mostly about the extended action sequences.  Really, The Bourne Ultimatum is impossible to understand unless you've seen the first two, and it's really the third act of a story about Jason Bourne recovering himself from a bunch of shady dudes who got him to volunteer for a CIA program that made him a superhuman, but messed badly with his personality and splintered his mind.

I don't think the third movie, no matter how many Joan Allens in turtlenecks it may contain, is actually a great movie.  It's a necessary concluding chapter with more impressive stunts than prior films.  And speaking of Joan Allen, my feeling was that Pam Landy's part was more pivotal in making you care that any of this was happening at all than anyone realized.  Without a Pam Landy, you've got a bunch of people just operating in a moral neutral zone where it's all about government folks playing CYA and a guy who's a bit of a cypher trying to not die.  That's not really a story, per se.

I was unsure what to expect with a fourth installment, especially one arriving late.  I had no idea what story they might concoct to see Jason Bourne back in action after escaping.  But, like Batman comics of late, it seems there's no part of Bourne's origin that we don't need to explore more, and so it's back to the origins of Treadstone,
I'm genuinely not sure how well the Bourne franchise is going to age, anyway, but the nine year gap between the last films and this one leaves the first few minutes of the movie feeling like Grandpa Movie Maker is Making a Movie About Computers.  Literally the second line of the movie is "use SQL to corrupt their databases".  Which...   Man*  It becomes the kind of movie where people type in commands that are literally like the commands are dialog, important information in a file is highlighted in a red textbox, and a blurry picture can become instantly clear when Tommy Lee Jones, as our crusty CIA lifer, says "enhance!".**

The challenge of doing a techno-thriller in 2016 is that you're now dealing with a population that's become conversant in the basics of information security and a lot of people who can spot a gaffe and get pulled right out of the movie.  This may or may not include buying that the 28 year old character you've added to your movie would be in line for running their own cyber-squad, let alone a top-level promotions after what looks like a colossal @#$%-up with astounding ramifications and a body count deep into double-digits on both foreign and American soil.

This was the first movie in which the characters, now past the point of really having a reason to care about Jason Bourne, now seem like petty gods, doing deity business that impacts mere mortals as they go about their daily lives, the CIA seemingly playing a fatal game of capture-the-flag in the middle of their lives.

The basic set-up is that (Darling) Nicky Parsons from the first three Bourne movies (Julia Stiles) is now some sort of rogue hacker helping out a WikiLeaks-like organization and, in her quest to uncover CIA info, finds ALL the files on ALL the shady stuff, which the CIA keeps in a convenient single directory structure.  Somehow she decides that Operation Ironhand is worse-than/ somehow-connected-to Treadstone and she seeks out Jason Bourne.

Meanwhile, CIA Chief (I guess?) Tommy Lee Jones is working both the hacker case which he decides is being led by Bourne, and he's talking turkey with a young Tech Billionaire who's platform is a stand in for Facebook and Google, depending on what the story needs at the moment.  Unshockingly, these stories dovetail.  Within the CIA, a bright, young member of the cyber-squad jumps onboard the Bourne investigation and looks to be maybe our new Pam Landy (no, Pam is never discussed, but they should have had a post-credits sequence with her seeing the morning paper and just swearing under her breath).

What seemed novel about the Paul Greengrass style in the second and third movies feels a little exhausting while watching a fourth movie so soon afterward, and sometimes you just want for them to get on with it.  I swear we watched The Asset walk through a hotel for a total of two minutes once you add up the bits of interspliced film  (here's the thing, Paul Greengrass, unless it's vital info, by this point, you don't need to show it.  It's actually deflating tension from the scene).

The car chases, fight scenes, etc... are once again, pretty good, even if there's nothing as good as the chase scene in Tunis.  That this all works pretty well is good news since it takes up a huge amount of the run-time of the movie.   But sometimes you just want to find a character to root for, and, weirdly, in this movie, it doesn't even really feel like it's Jason Bourne.

Apparently Bourne has spent the past 9 years crying himself to sleep and fight-clubbing for money.  Luckily the movie does not require him to become yet another face that sits and looks at screens and has not included "super hacker" among his many powers (because for the first twenty minutes I was really afraid this would be two hours of people looking at screens punctuated by car chases).

He's supposedly totally rattled by the 32 kills he made as a Treadstone agent, but the second he sees the acrobat thief from Ocean's 12, he racks up at least that bodycount in civilian casualties and incalculable injuries.  All kind of weird from the director who brought us United 93.  A final bit of action in the film echoes the tragedy in Nice, and while I didn't put my finger on that as exactly what bothered me about the scene until Jamie pointed out the similarities on our way home, I was shocked at the casualness with which the characters didn't just put civilians in jeopardy, but showed no remorse or thought about the damage they were doing.  Gods playing their games among the puny mortals.

All in all, the movie is fine, I guess.  I was hoping for a bit more, maybe some growth for the character of Jason Bourne, but instead we seemingly got more of same.  Which, after four movies, it may be time to move onward and upward.

*Obviously this was supposed to be a SQL injection attack, but

**this has nothing to do with anything, but in my first job, when we were trying to buy time and bosses were asking what was taking so long, we'd invariably exhale, look concerned, and then say "well, we're re-rerouting the encryptions" then make a face like "this is really scary for all of us, so...".  It was super fun and the bosses wouldn't ask a single follow up question.

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