Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse
Based on a character by Robert Ludlum
Matt Damon – Jason Bourne
Tommy Lee Jones – CIA Director Robert Dewey
Alicia Vikander- Heather Lee
Vincent Cassell – The Asset
Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons
Riz Ahmed as Aaron Kallor
There are only four stories? Or are there seven or twelve? It depends who you read. The assassin story (and word) comes from The Old Man of The Mountains in the Lebanon, training assassins by conditioning them with liberal amounts of hashish … hashishin. They believed they were in paradise and could re-enter it by murdering people. Sounds familiar? The conditioning of assassins is updated less pleasantly to brainwashing in The Manchurian Candidate, and in 2016, we fear that suicide bombers are being conditioned, or as we now say “radicalized” over the internet.
Assassination as a political tool was described by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince and he notes the danger of the lone assassin, with the example of the death of Roman Emperor Antoninus killed by a lone guard, a fate ”that cannot be avoided by princes because anyone who does not care about death may do it.” The theory was seized on by The Borgias … better to poison a single dangerous Duke or Pope, i.e. head of state, than to invade the country, and fight a war killing soldiers and civilians alike. It’s a theory espoused in Killing No Murder by Edward Hyams in 1969, and it’s at the heart of what drones are doing over the Middle East and Afghanistan. The death of Bin Laden (watched via remote cameras by the president) is mentioned in a couple of reviews as a modern example, but it’s not the same thing at all. That was a military operation, an assault with guns blazing. An assassin, as in Day of The Jackal and Target is a lone individual working by stealth.
Assassination looms larger in American history than even in renaissance Rome and Florence. Four presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy. Martin Luther King. Robert Kennedy. On the day we saw this, Hinkley, who attempted to kill Reagan was released from prison. Since the Cuban crisis of 1962, and the revelation of ten failed (and bizarre) attempts to target Fidel Castro, it has been specifically illegal to target foreign heads of state. The thesis of the Bourne series is that the CIA ignored this and assassination is a political method. It’s clearly either untrue or they have been extremely inept. They never got Saddam or Gaddafi.
Jason Bourne, with 32 official assassinations to his credit was part of a secret CIA program, as we’ve discovered via what used to be sold on DVD as The Bourne Trilogy. And then there were four.
On the Greek-Albanian border
At the start Bourne has gone underground, scraping a living as a bare knuckle fighter on the “Greek-Albanian border.” In Reykjavic, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who worked with him in the past, is busily hacking into the main CIA computer with the help of Icelandic computer-types. She breaks all the firewalls and gets into the Black Operations folders, which has details of Treadstone – the Bourne project. I find that credible as it seems to be something 14 year old autistic schoolboys manage on a PC in their bedroom, but banks of computers and screens look better.
CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) & Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander)
Ah, but back in Washington, the new CIA girl Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) is immediately alerted and sends out a signal to screw up the computer. She later turns out to be able to erase any computer in the world if there’s a mobile phone in the room. No, she doesn’t need to know the number. She can find that out too. Nicky escapes with a copy of the files on a USB stick, though the ones on sale in Staples don’t have ENCRYPTED printed on the side. Good idea for their next batch, it would look cool. Cinemas could sell them in the lobby. Unaccountably Nicky punches out an accomplice and threatens the others with a gun. But punching out or killing bystanders is a hallmark of the Bourne series.
So we are into the main story. Nicky plans a Snowden-type revelation of the CIA’s most secret files online, enlisting Bourne to help. The head of the CIA, Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) has to stop her, and get Bourne at the same time. He calls up The Asset (Vincent Cassell) in Rome and dispatches him to Athens where Nicky and Bourne are to meet. The Asset indicates that torture as well as assassination is the brief, as he first shoots a tied up bleeding man who just happens to be residing in his bathtub.
All in a day’s work: The Asset (Vincent Cassell)
The related strand is that Deep Dreams, a kind of mix of Facebook, Google and Apple, is developing a new technology. Although the CIA can already instantly find any phone or computer in the world, this will add the ability to watch everyone everywhere all the time. It reminded me of Chuck Berry’s hidden cameras in women’s toilets. The dirty secret is that Deep Dreams, a hip company, were secretly funded by the CIA on start-up. The boss, Aaron Kallor (Riz Ahmed) has decided to come clean and reveal all.
These twin strands of worldwide surveillance and monitoring are a myth, I fear, and yet one that the American government enjoys propagating. It’s a bit like the Iraq War when we were told they could land a surgical strike on a one cent piece and destroy Saddam. But they couldn’t.
And so it rolls on from Athens to Berlin to London to Las Vegas, with frequent cuts to Washington DC. Though Bourne was so broke he had to survive by bare knuckle fistfights he has somehow acquired the necessary wherewithal for international travel. I’ll avoid plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that The Asset spends the whole film trying to kill Bourne, and that Bourne is discovering a little more of the puzzle of his conditioning. Heather proposes bringing Bourne back in to the CIA, instead of killing him. Dewey is planning the assassination of the Deep Dreams boss Kallor (and decides he might as well kill Heather as well).
Aaron Kallor of Deep Dreams (Riz Ahmed) with Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones)
The Athens scenes are a phenomenal achievement, though will do little for Greek tourism. The Greek-Albanian border, though hot and dusty, looked a poor comparison with Corfu just across the water. Athens is in the midst of not just a demonstration in Syntagma Square opposite parliament (as has happened), but the whole city centre is consumed with fighting, overturned and blazing cars, police in riot gear. We get the first long, long, long chase scene, with Bourne and Nicky on a motor bike. As this goes through the middle of a major riot with aerial shots it is an extremely impressive chase. If only they’d said, ‘There you go James Bond … that’s our car chase!’ and left it there.
Walking through a riot: Bourne (Matt Damon) and Nicky (Julia Stiles)
The whole business ends up in Las Vegas for the launch of Deep Dreams new platform, or program or App or whatever. There’s a great shot as they arrive with that vulgar gold tower proclaiming “Trump” (which can mean “fart” in British English) centre screen. The Las Vegas sequence ends in an interminable car chase as The Asset is pursued by Bourne. We were literally on the edge of our seats … we sat right forward as did everyone in our row, spilling their popcorn. My wife gripped my hand with unusual intensity. It was extremely thrilling and noisy (I don’t mean the handholding), but also extremely silly and seemed interminable. It left me thinking that next time I see a car chase, I want something like Bullet – i.e. just about on the verge of being possible. I don’t want cars landing on top of cars, driving through thousands of cars on the wrong side of the five lane Las Vegas Strip, cars descending steps, cars flying over barriers and churning through hotel lobbies. This was at the extreme end.
I do think they’re in competition with James Bond, though Matt Damon as Bourne is a totally sexless hero. Most would be moved by Alice Vikander. Given that only two women seem to have speaking parts in the entire thing, I guess his opportunities were limited.
Like so many American screen heroes, Damon makes a virtue out of stoic, expressionless wooden features (cf. so many from John Wayne on). The film gets its 12A rating in spite of violence, because there’s no sex and no (to my memory) effing and blinding. They’ve surrounded Damon with three powerful actors … Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassell. Two of them aren’t even American … Cassell is French, Vikander is Swedish, though Vikander plays American as smoothly as she plays British. Cassell doesn’t sound French so much as “vaguely foreign” as befits a villain. It was a change not to have a British baddie for once.
It was all extremely exciting, brilliantly cut and constructed. But … it’s a film with pop gun shooting throughout. Bystanders, police officers, anyone in the way is dispatched with a bloodless shot. This is why Star Wars originally thought of Stormtroopers as semi-robotic and masked (they changed later) so that killing them in swathes was acceptable. However in a move the NRA must love, while shooting people is bloodless, fist fights are visceral and gory. As I know from watching Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy at Saturday morning pictures (The Modern Cinema, Winton, Bournemouth), real men dispatch enemy underlings with casual gunfire, but reserve fists for the really important enemies.
In July 2016, a heavily armoured SWAT truck cutting swathes through the populace leaves a very bad taste in the mouth as does all this bloodless shooting. In spite of its technical brilliance, it fails the “would the world be a better place if this film had not been made” test.
Back in Washington: Heather (Alicia Vikander) and Bourne (Matt Damon)
The Bourne Quartet DVD box set will come out fast, I suspect, and the quartet title will soon be outdated. Everything at the end of the plot with Alicia Vikander lays the seeds for a fifth film, in which she would have to feature.
My bet for Film Five (Jason V : Re-Bourne):
Bourne’s dead dad will be a major character. His death in Beirut in 1999 seen in flashback here, was all part of the plot. He will emerge from the grave. His death was all smoke, mirrors and SFX. Bourne will look blankly confused when Heather eventually offers her favours while stark naked. He does not understand what she means. 253 bystanders will be shot or run over. There will be three car chases. One will last fifteen minutes.
Maybe they DO know more about us than we imagine. This morning, writing the review, I Googled to check the spelling of Syntagma Square. The first entry was “Hotels near Syntagma Square” and I clicked on it. I paused trying to remember the name of the large hotel on the corner where I stayed in the late 70s and early 80s on publishing trips to Greece. You could see the guards in their white skirts and tights from the windows of most rooms. Then I went back to writing. Since then I have had several email offers for hotels in Athens, holidays in Greece and flights to Athens.