4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action and violence, and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.29.16
Director Paul Greengrass certainly hasn’t lost any of his juice. This newest installment in the Bourne franchise is relentless: It hits the ground running, never lets up for two full hours, and is bookended by a pair of spectacular action sequences.
I wouldn’t have thought Greengrass ever could top the mano a mano melees in 2004’s Bourne Supremacy, but he has ... and then some. Jason Bourne is a taut, breathtaking experience, its giddy momentum the result of equally fine work by editor Christopher Rouse, a longtime Greengrass colleague (and Academy Award winner, for 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum).
Greengrass and Rouse also collaborated on the timely, ripped-from-the-headlines script, which references the “safety or security?” argument at the heart of the recent spat between Apple Inc. and the FBI. The players have been altered to avoid lawsuits, but there’s no question which side of the fence our filmmakers occupy. Having navigated conspiracy-laden waters for more than a decade, Greengrass clearly doesn’t trust government agencies to have their citizens’ best interests — or privacy — at heart.
And with paranoia running rampant these days, this film definitely captures the national zeitgeist.
When last seen, Bourne (Matt Damon) had successfully back-tracked his actual identity, along with those responsible for the CIA training that transformed him into a hardened assassin. The victory was pyrrhic, as it left him without friends or a country. Convinced that the CIA would have him “erased,” he simply vanished.
Having remained off the grid for nearly a decade, Bourne has become a ragged, rootless shell, subsisting on meager earnings from underground bare-knuckle boxing matches. Damon’s grim features are weary and despondent during this introductory montage: the quiet despair of a man lacking purpose.
Then, suddenly, a blast from the past: He gets a message from former CIA colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who — also long on the run — has joined a hacking collective with the goal of exposing CIA dirty tricks. Her quest has borne fruit: 30 years’ worth of black ops files that include Operation Treadstone — which “created” Bourne — and something new called “Iron Hand.”
Even more damning, Nicky has uncovered additional details pertaining to Bourne’s actual identity — David Webb — along with the strong suggestion that his father, Richard (Gregg Henry), was directly involved with Treadstone. This revelation lends context to another of Bourne’s still fragmented memories: something having to do with a long-ago lunchtime meeting with his father.
Unfortunately, Nicky’s hacking efforts were spotted by young and ambitious CIA analyst and social media “influencer” Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), who alerts director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). The latter, a seasoned veteran of black ops programs, has no love for Bourne; he immediately activates the enigmatic Asset (Vincent Cassel), an anonymous assassin with — it would seem — many of Bourne’s skills.
The relevant parties intersect during a ferocious nighttime riot in Athens — with establishing footage of actual Greek civilian/police skirmishes — as Bourne attempts to link up with Nicky. Asset is ordered to prevent that, at all costs; the stage is set for a massive fracas involving thousands of protestors, hundreds of baton- and shield-wielding cops, Molotov cocktails, shattered cars, gunplay, motorcycles and pell-mell pursuits, given even greater intensity by the throbbing, pulse-pounding David Buckley/John Powell score.
Truly, we’ve never seen anything like it.
Treadstone’s legacy aside, Dewey is occupied further by events in his own back yard. He has orchestrated a clandestine “arrangement” with Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), founder and CEO of a globally popular social network dubbed Deep Dream. Graced with the charisma of a certain late and deeply lamented Apple luminary, Kalloor is in the process of unveiling his network’s latest iteration: one that guarantees privacy for users.
Except that this is a lie: Kalloor secretly has granted Dewey back-door access.
At least, Kalloor agreed to do so ... but that was before he learned of the recent hack into Agency mainframes. Now understandably concerned that Snowden-style leaks could expose this relationship — and never really comfortable with it in the first place — Kalloor threatens to back out.
Well, Dewey can’t have that.
And, throughout it all, Bourne — Webb — struggles to assemble additional bits of his shattered memories.
Damon’s performance has evolved over time, much as we’d expect during the course of 14 real-world years (since 2002’s The Bourne Identity). He’s no longer confused and aimless, responding to external threats only as they surface; he now has regained the savvy to anticipate, prepare and strike first. But these resurrected skills have come at a price; he laments the ongoing reminder that he’s little more than a reflex-honed assassin.
It’s an important remnant of his core humanity. Unlike Asset, Bourne isn’t a soulless killing machine ... and yet there’s also a duality, and Damon conveys the agony of such indecision. He clearly derives grim joy from doing his job well, as it reminds him of his original purpose. Could it be, as Heather theorizes to Dewey, that Bourne — in his heart — actually wishes to be welcomed, once again, into the CIA’s loving (if duplicitous) embrace?
Jones is at his cold-blooded, reptilian best as the ruthless Dewey, whose smiles are more fearsome than his scowls. (Either way, we expect to see fangs.) He lies blandly, capriciously and convincingly; if he threatens, it’s usually by implication or inference, the “victim” never quite sure what s/he has just heard. At the same time, Dewey is outwardly the picture of bonhomie and paternal devotion, particularly to Heather.
Jones hasn’t had this much fun since his Oscar-winning performance in 1994’s The Fugitive.
Vikander’s Heather is a tougher read. As introduced, she seems the pluperfect CIA stalwart: unflinchingly loyal to Dewey, and secure in her belief that the Agency is defending the nation. But as with all mentor/apprentice relationships, this one is colored by underlying tension.
Heather is troubled by Dewey’s agitated, end-justifies-the-means response to Bourne; it feels old-school and antiquated, whereas she thrives in the modern Internet era. As with every blossoming child, Heather begins to wonder about her father-figure. The subtle delicacy of Vikander’s performance lies in the way she conveys such doubts via uneasy expressions and increasingly wary body language. We also begin to hear an edge in her snap-to acknowledgments of Dewey’s various orders.
Stiles, always a pleasure, has blossomed as Nicky has weathered these many adventures. No longer the callow sacrificial lamb who barely survived her first encounter with Bourne, she has grown into a hardened, cynical underground patriot: quietly furious over the way that she, Bourne and many others have been exploited.
Cassel is persuasively vicious as the unstoppable Asset; Ato Essandoh is appropriately watchful as Craig Jeffers, Dewey’s deputy. Ahmed displays the captivating, mildly arrogant aura of Tech Entrepreneur.
The film’s production values are top-notch across the board, with shout-outs going to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and production designer Paul Kirby, both of whom deserve credit for orchestrating and capturing the opening Athens sequence. Stunt coordinator Gary Powell also deserves a bow for those suspenseful 10 minutes; not since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan has a drama made such a breathtaking first impression.
Given the ferocity of that opening salvo, viewers can be forgiven their concern that Greengrass has emptied his cannon too quickly. Fear not: This escapade concludes with an equally dynamic — and entirely different — set piece.
There’s no question that the Bourne series re-shaped the cinematic spy thriller mold, with the other major players — notably Bond and the Mission: Impossible franchise — doing their best to keep up. Jason Bourne has upped the ante yet again, and it’ll be fun to see what follows.
Because one thing is certain, from this film’s final scene: Bourne will be back.