Bourne, Again: Leftish Spy Thriller Scores While Other Summer Tentpoles Fall

In this year of mostly misfiring big budget genre films, the rather belated return of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass to the '' espionage franchise is a rare solid success.
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In this year of mostly misfiring big budget genre films, the rather belated return of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass to the 'Jason Bourne' espionage franchise is a rare solid success. Yet, though it is much better than a surprising number of carping reviewers think, it feels like something of a missed opportunity. And some decisions seemingly taken for strictly commercial reasons -- like the over-the-top Las Vegas chase scene near the film's end that clearly interrupts the natural flow of the film, and a 3D conversion for the very important Chinese market that is reportedly infuriating many viewers who would have found the director's jittering hand-held approach disconcerting enough -- are almost certainly hurting the film's performance.

Yet 'Jason Bourne,' despite some faults, is also something of a triumph of bravura action thriller filmmaking, with a number of stunning sequences, a politically noteworthy if somewhat paranoid leftish plot, and strong performances from the three Oscar winners in the film's three major roles. And it is definitely a hit, one which sets up a credible path forward for the Bourne character as we go, with star Matt Damon surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

Alicia Vikander etches a very intriguing screen presence as a rising cyber-spymaster, replete with a sort of minimalist rather than glamorous allure and an off-kilter blend of iciness and sympathy. Tommy Lee Jones is reliably commanding as her boss, the ruthless CIA director, sympathetically appearing to recruit Bourne anew as he actually sets him up for assassination. Riz Ahmed also impresses as a compromised Silicon Valley social media mogul and old Stanford classmate of Vikander's character, as do Julie Stiles as Bourn'e old CIA associate gone rogue in hacktivist mode and Vincent Cassel as a deadly professional assassin.

And then there is Matt Damon, again making it hard to imagine anyone else playing the role which made him a major action star back in 2002 when 'The Bourne Identity' launched a very satisfying trilogy.

A trailer for 'Jason Bourne.'

Damon is a unique American movie star, one of only a few these days, with a character actor's knack of disappearing into a role even as he retains his very appealing good guy persona. (Is there anyone who dislikes Matt Damon? Besides Barack Obama when Damon criticizes him, that is?) It's always a good sign when a Matt Damon character shows up in a movie, right? Like in 'Interstellar.'

So satisfying was the trilogy of films -- 'The Bourne Identity,' 'The Bourne Supremacy,' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum' that culminated in 2007 that the Jason Bourne story seemed complete. Or as complete as the story of anyone who finally learns who he is and sets in motion the destruction of a corrupted CIA cohort after he dives into the East River and swims off into an unknown future can be, that is.

With 'The Bourne Legacy,' a Bourne-free (sorry) entry featuring Jeremy Renner as an associated assassin gone rogue, doing well but not extremely well in the wake of the original trilogy, there was a definite commercial imperative to bring back the Damon-Greengrass team for another outing of a character whose story appeared done.

Perhaps that is why this new film has gotten more critical flak than it deserves. One could easily imagine Jason Bourne, who now knows he is David Webb, giving up his life of violence and becoming a, what? A scholar? (As he was in the Robert Ludlum novels.) A teacher? Someone who walks the world seeking enlightenment and meting out justice when needed (like the peace-loving, ass-kicking Shaolin monk Caine in 'Kung Fu?')

Probably not many people pictured Jason Bourne plying his trade on the underground extreme fighting circuit. It's all rather downbeat and desperate, with Bourne looking so built up that he could be another Terminator. (Maybe not what Matt was expecting back when he was at Harvard.)

The once amnesiac agent, in reality an uncannily skilled assassin, has remembered everything -- everything he thinks he knows, that is -- and he's left a lot of bodies in his wake. Maybe nihilism and off-the-grid survival makes a certain degree of sense, after all.

But while his memory is complete, his knowledge, especially about how he came to give up his life as an Army special forces officer to become a CIA assassin, is decidedly incomplete. As a rendezvous with an old CIA colleague gone rogue makes clear.

That he meets his old friend Nikki Parsons (as played by Julia Stiles, the only other character to appear in all the Damon-starring Bourne movies) in Athens, in the midst of an anti-austerity riot, gives director Greengrass, with his background in news documentary, the opportunity to show off his chops in a stunningly constructed sequence which plays and feels like the real thing.

New Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, playing a wunderkind CIA officer, may be an important new ally for Jason Bourne. Or she may not.

All the action sequences, and 'Jason Bourne' does not stint on action, except for the last, the wildly over-the-top and frankly gratuitous vehicular smash-up of a chase sequence in Las Vegas, are intelligently and thrillingly constructed.

But none more so than the Athens sequence. There Bourne learns in very costly fashion that there is much more to his story than he'd ever imagined. As he moves forward to embrace the knowledge, including a surprisingly unfriendly encounter with a Julian Assange type in Berlin, the Bourne story moves into the realm of today's surveillance state controversies.

Novelist Robert Ludlum created the Bourne character in the wake of revelations to the U.S. Senate's Church Committee (which included my old friend and boss Gary Hart) investigating intelligence excesses about CIA mind control and assassination programs. MK Ultra mind manipulation experiments using hallucinogenic drugs led in curious fashion to the Ken Kesey electric kool-aid "Acid Tests" (with the then brand new Grateful Dead as the house band) introducing LSD to an emerging counter-culture. (See Tom Wolfe's classic 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.') ZR/Rifle led, among other things of course, to gong show-style efforts to assassinate Castro.

In 'Jason Bourne,' MKUltra and ZR/Rifle are combined with the global surveillance program that Edward Snowden says is called Stateroom to produce a cinematic meld called Iron Hand.

The term Project Iron Hand, which is way too nefarious and on-the-nose to be a real intelligence term, is one of a few missteps by the filmmakers. But it is, after all, a movie.

A movie in which, not incidentally, all the bad guys are ultimately Americans or directed by Americans. Jihadists exist in this film only to serve as fall guys.

That seemed a problem for some critics. But why should it be? For starters, it's a movie, not a documentary. And there's not much doubt that some hype the jihadist threat in order to promote very questionable agendas.

There's also not much doubt that there is a significant, if hardly overwhelming, jihadist threat, and I enjoy entertainment depicting that as well. If you can't hold two seemingly opposing thoughts at the same time, this may not be the right world.

In any event, paranoia is intrinsic to the source material. Robert Ludlum's novels were, if anything, much more baroque, frequently pitched on the knife edge of hysteria.

'The Bourne Ultimatum,' near universally approved by critics, featured the CIA assassination of an investigative reporter for the Guardian. That 2007 film was the biggest box office spy film at the North American box office until 'Skyfall' came along for Bond's momentous 50th anniversary.

This film won't do nearly as well as 'The Bourne Ultimatum' here but has already nearly surpassed it abroad. It could well do $450 million worldwide; if it does, it will be the biggest Bourne film by several million. Though not in terms of impact. The Bourne trilogy, with its gritty, jittery verisimilitude, had an enormous impact on the James Bond franchise (welcome Daniel Craig!) and on actions films in general, but its style now is increasingly familiar.

If it has one action sequence too many -- the Vegas chase is frequently cited by negative reviewers and I found it over the top and distracting from the film's main developments -- and if it doesn't even mention the National Security Agency in its depiction of a CIA hell-bent on establishing a massive surveillance regime, something which is generally the much larger NSA's purview, that's okay. It is a movie, not a documentary.

Nevertheless, there is a real world CIA role in a still largely secret agency focused on surveillance and electronic spying. I'll get into that when Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' comes out next month. I have a theory about Edward Snowden's true role, based on my recollections from a few decades back, which could lend at least some credence to how things are depicted in 'Jason Bourne.'

In the meantime, the new Bourne will play on into the fall, a skillful, adult, hard-hitting, largely compelling and intelligent thriller amidst all the flotsam and jetsam of a bad movie summer's backwash.

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