Given the memory problems of its protagonist, it should be no surprise that director Paul Greengrass found great success with the Bourne movies, whose visual style jumps and flits around like someone with attention deficit disorder.
In case you, like Bourne***, have had your memory wiped by CIA conditioning, Bourne is the trained killer played by Matt Damon, who most of the time has no idea who he is, what he’s doing or why he’s killing the person right in front of him.
British director Greengrass took over the franchise from the second movie and the pair shook up the whole spy movie landscape – Bond was so scared, he turned into Daniel Craig.
Damon and Greengrass are back again, having sworn they wouldn’t be (never say never again, as they say in spy films), and surely this time we will get to the bottom of Bourne’s identity, give poor Damon something to work with and audiences something to care about in this grimly efficient human robot of a lead character?
Not really. The film continues in the usual location hopping style. Within five minutes the on-screen videprinter has clocked up Greek Albanian Border; Reykjavik, Iceland; CIA, Langley; Silicon Valley; Syntagma Square; Athens.
In each of the places, something clearly very urgent happens as Greengrass builds up his picture of tension and confusion. Each time, there’s a wonderfully orchestrated and edited scene (it helps that Greengrass’s usual editor Christopher Rouse is also credited as a screenwriter this time – someone’s got to have an idea where all this is going..), usually involving Matt Damon running or riding away from encroaching heavies while being tracked by Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones on their computers back in Virginia. Gosh, I thought, you really have to type fast to be in the CIA these days.
Vikander, the newcomer to the series, plays a keen young thing at the CIA who seems to have quite a crush on Bourne just from having hacked into his files. They must be very sexy files. Tommy Lee Jones’ CIA boss Dewey, well, he just barks a lot, like an old dog in the knacker’s yard, his baggy eyes drooping practically off the screen. “Where the hell is the asset?” is what he says, mostly.
He means the super-intense assassin played by Frenchman Vincent Cassel who seems to have a personal thing for Bourne too, and spend most of his screen time unzipping black rucksacks and assembling ridiculously accurate guns out of the contents.
Meanwhile Riz Ahmed, the British actor with the most lovely eyelashes in cinema, plays a tech billionaire whom people can’t seem to stop cheering at conferences. They might boo him, though, if they found out he’s been selling their privacy details to the CIA…
Greengrass’s technique is clever. This is nonsense, but it looks so choppy and real, so verite, that we get swept up in believing it. Of course Reykjavik is the international hotbed for cyber hackers; of course the CIA would keep all their secret stuff in a computer file marked “Black Operations”; of course you’d keep lethal weapons and priceless USB drives in a locker at a major train station (I think the Bourne movies might single-handedly keep the left luggage locker industry afloat.)
The film is super-charged by modern-day paraphernalia and issue-based paranoia – encryption codes, malware, cell phones with super fast upload times; internet privacy, the use of fear as protection, the murky, expedient politics of the spy game and murder as patriotic duty. While it lasts, Greengrass and Damon have you in their blank stare and icy grip.
I like the Bourne films. They feel real, not too far-fetched. They are grimly humourless but but there’s just no room for jokes. Everything is so seriously slick and breathlessly choreographed, so tinglingly tense and jerkily up-close, including the fisticuffs. Bourne hardly says anything but he’s constantly on the move, leaping, hurtling, punching – he’s almost like a silent star, a Buster Keaton of the action genre.
Only at the climax does this film become particularly ridiculous. The final chase – of at least 6 I counted – through Las Vegas involving a stolen SWAT car becomes so pumped up and outrageous that I was hooting with laughter even while half a casino was brought crashing to the ground.
What makes the Bourne movies work, too, is the personal chase going on inside Bourne’s own mind. Here, he is haunted by flashbacks to his father and how he was killed in a car bomb. Only know he thinks he’s worked out who detonated that bomb and revenge becomes his motivation, which is why the CIA fear the monster they created is coming back to tear the house down. They know exactly what they’re dealing with, but it’s only the human part they can’t control.
It works. For as the long ( over two hours) as the film has you by the throat, it works. Watching is like some cinematic extreme sport. After it’s over, you feel dazed, bashed about, bewildered, exhausted. But strangely ready to do it all again.