Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Jason Bourne"

 1.5 / 5 

The unrelentingly, oppressively stupid Jason Bourne is, I fear, the spy thriller our times deserve.  It's a movie that doesn't just ask audiences to suspend disbelief, it is defiantly unconcerned with, even dismissive of, those of us who can't.  I've rarely had such a visceral, angry reaction to a film and the disdain its creators seem to have for the audience.

Here's one example of why I object so strongly to Jason Bourne:

Toward the beginning of the movie, Bourne (played again by Matt Damon, a very good actor who is nearly wordless in this film) is in Athens, where he meets former CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles).  She has devoted her life to undermining the CIA, and is going to release classified documents about its bad-guy programs to the Internet.

The set-up is pretty good.  The idea that Jason Bourne might dig into some Snowden-style intrigue is promising.  But, other than name-checking Snowden more than a few times, this turns out to be a movie with absolutely nothing on its mind.

So, there are Jason and Nicky, arranging a clandestine Athenian meeting.  You've seen enough spy movies to know the kind of place the would meet: a dark, shadowy sort of alley, as far away from people as they could get.  But, no, they do not choose such a place.  They choose to meet at a large public square, just as an anti-government demonstration is taking place, where they can be sure to be surrounded by police and surveillance cameras.

Those surveillance cameras are all, rather miraculously, under the direct control of the U.S. CIA.  At Langley, gruff, hangdog CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and his eager, ultra-serious head of cyber-intelligence Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) bark orders at the bank of computer operators.  I paraphrase here, but the dialogue runs along the lines of: "Call up camera 247 ... show the image on screen ... enlarge! ... there he is -- plot his course!"  If nothing else, Vikander proves she would be an impressive commander aboard the Enterprise.

No matter where Jason and Nicky go, a camera can see them.  Since these are people who have studied the methods of the CIA, you'd imagine that even if they realized, "Hey, our great meeting location is kind of busy," they might try to sneak away into the quiet alley they should have chosen in the first place.

Instead, Jason Bourne steals a police motorcycle, which is rarely a good way to ensure that the police don't follow you.  He creates the biggest ruckus possible as he speeds through Athens with Nicky sitting behind him.

Now, all of this stupidity could be forgiven -- after all, James Bond is never exactly low-key about his actions -- if the movie were a sight to behold, but it is not.  Director Paul Greengrass's style hasn't changed one bit in the 14 years since the first Bourne movie: It's all shaky-cam all the time, a style that thankfully had been on the wane but now threatens to make a nauseating, confusing comeback.  There's little way of knowing exactly what is going on at any time in Jason Bourne, because the camera never stays still long enough to help us understand where we are in space or where characters are in relation to one other.

After Athens, Jason Bourne momentarily heads into potentially interesting territory again when it introduces Riz Ahmed as the young entrepreneur of a social media company who, it turns out, accepted a whole lot of money from the CIA to build his business, but now doesn't want to build a back door for them to spy on the billions of people who use the service.

Does a social media company have a responsibility to help the government monitor traffic for activity that could put the world at risk?  It's a fascinating question, but Jason Bourne sidesteps it completely. It's just a momentary plot point as the movie hurtles along.

At times, the CIA uses a battery of high-tech equipment and ubiquitous security cameras (all of which always work perfectly and are hooked up to remarkably stable Internet connections) to track the every move of its characters.  At other times, they can't find Jason Bourne in the middle of Las Vegas.

These few examples barely begin to explain just how stupid Jason Bourne is, but it's offensively violent, too.  In the climax of the film, a bad guy steals a SWAT van (and you know how easy those would be to steal, especially at the scene of an active crime) and drives it down the Las Vegas Strip, plowing through literally hundreds of vehicles, which go soaring through the air.

Now, the Bourne films generally try to convince us that they exist in a certain version of our own reality, so consider what might happen if a SWAT van started plowing through Las Vegas and killing hundreds of innocent bystanders.  What might that actually look like?  What terrifying scenes of carnage might it elicit?  How many news helicopters would be flying through the air to track every single move?

Not in Jason Bourne.  In this movie, it's played for fun, and as the CIA look on with sudden helplessness, Jason Bourne and the bad guy, a guy I recognized from one of the previous movies, but whose identity is really irrelevant, leave a trail of destruction across Las Vegas, they wind up in a sewer tunnel where no one seems able to find them.  They get into a fistfight.  I won't keep you in suspense: Bourne wins.  And then he walks away.

He literally walks away, into the night, as if he's some mysterious entity.  The same guy that hundreds of people are tracking, the guy who can be found on any street in Athens, walks away.

And then, adding insult to all of the injury, Bourne willingly shows up in Washington D.C.  In the middle of a public park, he appears seemingly out of nowhere, taps Vikander's CIA analyst on the shoulder, and tells her not to look for him anymore.  "How can I find you?" she asks him in a hushed, dramatic tone.

Are you freaking kidding me?

Come on.  How can you find him?  It wasn't that hard in Athens, was it?  You had him trapped in a sewer in Vegas and you didn't bother to take him in.

Amid all of this, for just a moment, Jason Bourne hints at its simplistic political views, which are basically that the government cannot be trusted, that only billionaires who lead private industry want to protect the public, and that the privacy of Internet users is more important than global security.

Whether or not I agree with those political views, Jason Bourne is very much of the times.  It is a lazy movie.  It is a carelessly sloppy movie.  It has not thought things through.  It plows ahead because it can, and it values the experience more than the message.  As far as spy movies go, it could only have been made now, in these overwhelmingly weird times.  Make of that what you will.

Viewed July 31, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood



  1. Absolutely spot-on about the insult to the intelligence of the audience. I sensed in mine that they were just stupefied by the amount of violence we were seeing. I also kept thinking, "This is not a CIA show, it's another member of the intelligence service" and then... the whole plot of his history was practically not there. This could have been a fine film if their background was better and more authentic. Instead they went for bam! bam! bam!. SPECIAL EFFECTS should never take the place of a plot. Too often this summer's films fall in that trap.

  2. This could have been an even finer film if they simply had not made it.