Jason Bourne (2016)

★★★★

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Jason Bourne PosterDirector: Paul Greengrass

Release Date: July 27th, 2016 (UK); July 29th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Thriller

Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander

The prospect of another Bourne movie with Paul Greengrass at the helm and Matt Damon in the mix brought out the hopeful side in my otherwise sequel-averse instinct. While The Bourne Legacy done its best to redistribute the focus of a successful, smart franchise onto a new character, it never really looked like hurdling the post-Damon problem. Jeremy Renner has proven to be quite the asset since 2011, each new turn as Hawkeye in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe more successful than the last. But Aaron Cross was no Jason Bourne and director Tony Gilroy couldn’t muster the same level of thrill as Greengrass had during his time in charge (it is worth pointing out that as screenwriter Gilroy has had as much to do with the Bourne franchise’s success as anyone).

Therefore in late 2014 when it was announced Greengrass and Damon would, in fact, be returning for a third outing together — and a fifth overall — I welcomed the news. A lot has happened in world of geopolitics since The Bourne Ultimatum, notably the rise of social media and the undercutting of questionable surveillance techniques by the likes of Edward Snowden. WikiLeaks has become a force, for better or worse disseminating otherwise secretive information around the world, affording us the opportunity to learn about foreign policy tactics and moral mistakes. And just recently, the Pokémon Go app launched to the delight of almost everybody with a smartphone, users a simple ‘yes you can use my location data’ away from catching Pikachu.

Miraculously, Jason Bourne covers all of those bases with a familiar garnish of Greengrass grit. We reconnect with Bourne (Damon) as he steps out of the bare-knuckle frying pan and back into the fugitive fire. The former sleeper agent, now practically free of his debilitating memory loss, learns from former Treadstone contact Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) about some new information regarding said program and his father (Gregg Henry). The CIA pick up on Bourne’s re-emergence and, under the guidance of Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and rising star Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), seek to bring him in — or worse.

Stylistically, Greengrass remains a champion of the 24-influenced techno-sheen: operatives hunch over computers showing complex maps and databases; Barry Ackroyd’s camera harangues characters, zooming in on their stressed faces and back out again; edits are snappy, driving momentum. A tip of the hat, too, to the practical effects used throughout and especially those on display during the final act. All of these visual footprints coalesce to invoke a sense of urgency, as you would expect. Perhaps more importantly they help to paint the on-screen world as our world, as an arena built for the era of borderless technology and ethically dubious decision-making.

The film manoeuvres around three typical set pieces: the first, a multiperson jaunt through an anti-government protest in Athens; the second, a London-based double-cross; and the third, a lengthy game of cat and mouse around the convention centres and streets of Las Vegas. These aren’t exactly new action frontiers for the series — the scene in Athens borrows heavily from the Waterloo Station sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum — but they are all expertly crafted and thoroughly involving. Primarily because they place us right there with Bourne as he searches for answers while attempting to avoid the CIA’s traps. It can get quite tense.

Unsurprisingly, then, the outing is a winner both structurally and technically. What about themes, character, and narrative? The latter two are certainly weaker, though that’s not to say they are weak. Bourne himself has always got by on Damon’s brutish charisma which is again the case here (for a marquee attraction, the actor has but a few pages of dialogue). We see an ageing protagonist at the onset, a lost soul battered by a gruelling life: “All that matters is staying alive,” he says, yet he earns his way as an underground fighter. Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff Dewey is as world weary as the man he wants to capture, but has amassed experienced and is a master player of the game. There is no villain per se — Vincent Cassel comes closest as a hitman employed by the CIA — meaning the piece evolves into a grey area battle between Bourne, courting a lighter shade, and Dewey’s darker prerogative.

Alicia Vikander was always going to be a winning get for the franchise, though the shuffle does dizzy her character at times. She unveils a great glare, her serious face on point throughout as Lee, however the actor is asked to use it a little too often. It’s as if the filmmakers want to her to be the next Bond so badly they’ve created a character so brisk in personality that the casting suits over at MGM simply have to take notice. I suppose everyone on-screen is wrapped up in the seriousness of their various predicaments, and rightly so. Lee does get more involved as the piece progresses and her final destination is an intriguing one, it’s just that Vikander’s talent, for my liking, should have commanded that bit extra. Julia Stiles likewise. Parsons serves a purpose here but as one of the few characters already ingrained in the Bourne community, a grander presence would have been welcomed.

Given this is the fifth instalment of the series, and a picture not based on any sort of primary source material, it is right to consider the film’s aim. What does Jason Bourne have to offer that the previous pictures did not? The answer almost wholly is of thematic content, in that the film expands upon its already established surveillance lexicon and roots itself in updated issues of the present day. That Athens protest I referenced earlier could be happening right now, for instance. Bourne’s unravelling of the Treadstone program brought to light a seedy government process, true, but it also revealed the location of active field agents and subsequently put them at risk. Similar, in conclusion but not effect, to the WikiLeaks reveals which, in some cases, have inconvenienced innocent civilians.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse also incorporate the rise of social media and particularly its knife-edge promise to protect user information. The duo mean well and have the correct issue at heart; we are challenged to consider the probability that our personal data isn’t really that safe when in the hands of mega corporations, which is almost certainly true. It is a clumsily handled narrative thread though. When upstart CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) exclaims “no-one will be watching you” before an audience of technologically savvy people during a lecture on what users should expect when they sign up to his new social media platform, those in attendance all vigorously applaud like mindless cattle. Surely we’re too sceptical for that sort of behaviour these days.

The filmmakers try to squeeze in as much compelling and relevant detail as possible, though are clearly mindful not to overdo it. (A discussion between Dewey and Kalloor even hints at the recent Apple-FBI iPhone encryption saga.) The series has always been admirably faithful to process, much more so than its genre counterparts. This approach doesn’t always work: the need to establish mission procedure and tick every box can occasionally halt character development, and I think it does here. But Jason Bourne is an intelligent action-thriller, a rare breed of tentpole movie that we should demand more frequently. Its message, apt: moral clarity has no place in muddy waters and our geopolitical world is utterly caked.

Jason Bourne - Tommy Lee Jones & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Thriller

Today I am focusing on some of my favourite films in the thriller genre. Just before I begin, I would like to be clear on how I make the distinction between thriller and action, because sometimes they seem to mesh into one. This is just my own personal way of telling both genres apart and there really is no right or wrong answer here — you may think something completely different!

Firstly, the main similarities between the two genres are the typically a fast-paced plot and, more often than not, a heroic character fighting off a villainous one in one way or another. For me, the separation tends to occur in the tone of the film. For example, a thriller seeks out suspense and jeopardy as the driving force, whereas an action film is all about excitement and liveliness. Also — and again this is just the way I see it — action films tend to be more light-hearted than thrillers (not always, but generally).

Anyway, on to five greats!

Skyfall (2012)

The newest film on the list, Skyfall was released in October 2012 and declared instantly by the vast majority of viewers to be the best Bond film ever. Helmed by Sam Mendes and with Daniel Craig reprising his role as James Bond, the film follows Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) throughout his investigation of a violent attack on MI6 at the hands of former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who is out for revenge.

“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”

As I mentioned earlier, Skyfall has been touted as the best Bond film ever by audiences and critics alike, and has now grossed well over $1 billion which makes it — as of writing — the eighth highest grossing film of all time. That tells you that Sam Mendes done something right. In fact, he done just about everything right in this emotional roller coaster ride. For the first time, the audience is invited into the ins and outs of the relationship between Bond and M which makes this instalment more weighty and heartfelt, yet it still maintains that slickness that has always been associated with the franchise. Mendes has a stellar cast at his disposal — joining Daniel Craig (who plays his best Bond to date opposite Judi Dench, in my opinion) in Skyfall are newcomers to the franchise Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris who each add their own nuances to the film (Wishaw is particularly good as Q). However, the star of the show is Javier Bardem with his charismatic, extravagant portrayal of villain Raoul Silva. On a par with Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale (we will just ignore Quantum of Solace for now) Bardem is hugely effective opposite Craig and the two flourish as a result.

Although Bond has become a genre on its own essentially, Skyfall claims a spot in my top thriller films for its crisp, free-flowing script and interesting characters.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

“Do not insult my hair again.”

No Country For Old Men is an Academy Award winning 2007 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (or just the Coen brothers). The plot surrounds Josh Brolin’s character, hunter Llewelyn Moss after he uncovers over $2 million worth of cash at a drug deal gone wrong and is pursued as a result by vicious hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who has been hired to recover the stolen cash. Meanwhile, almost retired sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself thrust directly into the cat-and-mouse chase between the two.

It is not often the Coen Brothers get it wrong and, true to form, No Country For Old Men is a knockout. This marks Javier Bardem’s second appearance on my list, and for the second time he steals the show. Bardem is excellent at portraying a psychotic, emotionless killer and his aura throughout the film adds to the creepy, on-the-edge, thriller-ish atmosphere. Both Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are terrific in their depictions of a desperate war veteran and a straight-to-the-point county sheriff respectively. The 1980s Texas setting truly adds to the grit (wink) and once again proves just how good a pair of eyes the Coen Brothers have at selecting locations for their films — have a look at Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? if you do not believe me.

No Country For Old Men is captivating and intense, just two of the many characteristics which make it a very enjoyable thriller.

Argo (2012)

“Screw the Oscars, man”

Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature, political thriller Argo, opened in cinemas a few weeks before Skyfall in October 2012 and stars Affleck, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston. The film is a dramatisation of the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1980s where six fugitive American diplomats require assistance in the form of extraction out of Iran from CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck).

I cannot wait for Affleck’s next film, because this one is absolutely outstanding. Argo defines the thriller genre — every characteristic required to make this film a success is in there. Gripping, intense, polished and stylish, Argo delivers on all fronts. For a political thriller, the plot is not difficult to follow, yet it remains shrewd and without any glaring mishaps. One of the more surprising elements here, particularly following the terrifying opening sequence, are the pockets of dark comedy splattered throughout the film which by no means feel out of place. Affleck manages to equate the frantic goings-on with enough dark humour to ensure the film does not become too lifeless or overbearing. Each of the performances from the cast are solid, with Alan Arkin standing out in particular, but the constantly flowing nature of the plot is the key to this film’s success.

How Ben Affleck was snubbed by the Oscars (he did not receive a nod in the Best Director category) is beyond me. Argo is a must-see film and definitely one of the best released in 2012.

Inception (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan, the summer blockbuster of 2010, Inception, stars a jam-packed ensemble cast lead by Leonardo DiCaprio, who receives his support from the likes of Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard (the list goes on). DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an extractor — or plainer terms, a thief — who enters his subject’s dreams in order to carry out an extraction. When he is offered the chance to see his children again, Cobb must assemble a team of specialists together in order to plant an idea into his target’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious — a process known as inception.

“My bad.”

I am probably going be referring to film critic Mark Kermode a lot during this next paragraph, because his review of Inception is one of the best I have heard. Massive summer blockbusters are sometimes tarred (often justifiably) as being big money-making schemes with very little for their audience, who have become accustomed to seeing films where absolutely nothing happens other than some pointless, soulless action sequences (I am looking at you Michael Bay). Kermode attributes this to a small percentage of filmmakers perhaps assuming their audience is too ‘dumb’ to be able to watch a film and at the same time… think. Yes, think. It really is absurd, but it does appear to happen. Look at Transformers for example: the whole franchise is nothing more than robots hitting each other, which is fine once (I suppose), but not over and over again until it becomes so intolerable it hurts to watch. Inception, however, is a perfect example of a massive blockbuster that provides enough action and thrills to appease everyone, but also makes its audience think during the film — and it worked, because the film has taken over $825 million. Why? Because people appreciate that Christopher Nolan is looking out for his audience and making films that will challenge them, but that are also highly enjoyable (The Dark Knight trilogy being another example). Also, because Inception had a number of different layers to it (both literally and figuratively) and because people enjoyed it, some then had to go back and see it again in order for them to fully understand it! That does not mean those people are dumb, quite the opposite in fact: it means they are thinking.

But I digress. Inception is a show-stopping thriller stuffed full of ideas, great performances, amazing visual effects, comedic moments and even some emotion (look it up, Bay).

Blood Diamond (2006)

“Is my accent really that bad?”

The oldest film on my list (albeit not very old), Blood Diamond is another political thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This time he accompanied by Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly in a Sierra Leone setting. At the height of the Sierra Leone civil war (1996-2001), smuggler Danny Archer (DiCaprio) teams with a local fisherman (Hounsou) and a reporter (Connelly) in an attempt to seek out and gain possession of a large diamond, with each of the three boasting different motives.

Leonardo DiCaprio (incidentally, my favourite actor) gets a bad rap for his South African accent in this film — it sounds great to me, but maybe I am touch biased. I doubt that. The performances are very strong, with all three protagonists providing a combination of fury, optimism, emotion and anguish to accompany the desperate situation they find themselves in (particularly DiCaprio and Hounsou). The story moves at greater-than-steady pace which provides the thriller-ish aspect which the film has in abundance, with Edward Zwick’s narrative ensuring the audience remains grasped throughout. Part of the formula which contributes to Blood Diamond’s success in my eyes, is its realism as it depicts some of the hardships most civilians staying in Sierra Leone (and elsewhere) were going through during the civil war. A few of the scenes are harrowing, not in a particularly gory way, but because they dramatise atrocities occurring around the world. I would say, however, that Zwick does not make these scenes exploitative in away way — they are an essential part of the story. On a last note, the African setting is absolutely stunning and almost becomes a character itself during the film.

Blood Diamond really hits home in its realistic nature, and at the same time serves up a gripping tale of two very different men with one common goal.

 

And now for some honourable mentions:

Se7en (1995) — This is a very accomplished horror story about two men tracking down a serial killer who leaves them clues in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins… only, with people involved. Morgan Freeman and a young Brad Pitt excel in their roles.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) — At times you get obsession, then you get Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. What opens as a fairly innocent thriller closes with just enough menace to fill anyone for a day. Or a lifetime.

Inside Man (2006) — A very underrated film in my opinion, Inside Man sees the charismatic Denzel Washington tasked with rescuing a bunch of civilians caught up in a bank robbery masterminded by Clive Owen. Very intriguing action with a wonderful twist.

Taken (2008) — I think just about everybody has seen Taken — it’s on the TV at least once every week (and weirdly, it costs exactly three pounds in just about every shop in Scotland). Often brutal, always entertaining and the birth Liam Neeson: action star.

Wrecked (2010) — A small, independent thriller starring Adrien Brody as a man who wakes up in the middle of a forest after a car accident he cannot remember anything about. Interesting, dramatic and unique.

Source Code (2011) — This may make an appearance on another list, but as a thriller it just about misses out my top five. Therefore, I will refrain from saying much more for now (but it is very, very good).

What are some of your favourite thriller films?

 

(Note: Mark Kermode reviews each week’s new film releases between 2-4pm on Fridays with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5live, so check them out if you like films, or flappy hands. You will not regret it.)