'Jason Bourne' Returns, In A Dizzying And Frenetic Thriller

Jul 29, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new movie, "Jason Bourne." The character was created by Robert Ludlum who wrote a series of "Bourne" novels. Bourne is a CIA assassin who goes rogue after losing and regaining his memory in the first book of the series, "The Bourne Identity."

Matt Damon played Bourne in the hit film adaptation and went on to make two sequels, "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" with director Paul Greengrass. Now nine years after "Ultimatum," Damon and Greengrass have returned with "Jason Bourne."

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The fascinating thing about the new "Bourne" movie, "Jason Bourne," is how it makes the evolutionary case for multitasking. See, it's not enough that Bourne, the CIA pariah played by Matt Damon, can box, Kung Fu fight and drive at high speeds on the wrong side of the road. To keep from being killed, he also must hold in his brain the idea that he's being watched by a limitless number of cameras on a limitless number of screens.

To beat the watchers, both across the street and across the ocean, he must anticipate their watching, watch them back and also, if possible, listen to them, which means bugging them while they're watching him, all while boxing, Kung Fu fighting and driving at high speeds on the wrong side of the road.

As an actor, Damon has too much integrity to pretend he can multitask to that degree and still be, you know, a fun person. So he turns his face into a mask of stoicism and gives the dullest performance of his life. It's in service to the movie, though, which he co-produced. I'm sure he thinks, I'll win that Oscar next year.

The movie isn't much fun either, but wow, does it wow you. Coming back to the series after nine years, director Paul Greengrass clearly knew he had to beat all the "Bourne" imitations, those cookie-cutter thrillers shot with jittery cameras in a faux documentary style - does he ever. He creates teeming, claustrophobia-inducing frames with the action off-center. When Bourne punches someone, the camera jerks in the direction of the blow, as if you're being hit.

Throw in jaw-dropping chases, like when Bourne pursues an assassin who steals a tank-like SWAT vehicle and pulverizes half the cars in Vegas, and you barely notice the dialogue is one terrible line after another. Here's the plot, people chase Bourne around the world trying to kill him. Well, the first person chasing him wants his help.

She's an ex-CIA agent played by Julia Stiles, acting on behalf of a Julian-Assange-like figure bent on exposing CIA ops going back decades, among them the one where Bourne was recruited as an assassin, which happened before the first film, "The Bourne Identity." She also knows stuff about Bourne's dead dad that will help him understand his life and maybe, down the road, crack a smile.

Alicia Vikander plays the CIA computer whiz tasked with tracking Bourne, who thinks she can bring him back into the fold. The CIA director, played by Tommy Lee Jones, disagrees, and also grumbles about those damn civil liberties interfering with national security. At one point, they reach Bourne on a phone while watching him from thousands of miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JASON BOURNE")

ALICIA VIKANDER: (As Heather Lee) Bourne, my name is Heather Lee. I’m not in charge here. I wasn’t here when you went missing. I can see you’re going through the old Treadstone files, re-tracing your history. I know you’re looking for something. Let me help you find it.

TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Robert Dewey) Give me that phone.

VIKANDER: (As Heather Lee) Yes, sir.

JONES: (As Robert Dewey) Jason, this is Robert Dewey. Do you remember me? Jason, your dad was a patriot. He could see the threats that America was facing. And like you, he chose to serve his country out of a profound sense of duty. He would not want to see you harm the agency. You have to stop this, and you have to stop it now.

EDELSTEIN: Tommy Lee Jones' dyspeptic deadpan is the only fun thing in "Jason Bourne." In one scene, he's in a restaurant with a tech billionaire, a Steve-Jobs-like guru, who's fighting to protect his customers' privacy. Two people walk by and Jones stops talking and stares at them until they pass. And that stare is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. He looks so mean.

Too bad his character concocts a conspiracy that would make people who think NASA faked the moon landing roll their eyes. The movie packs in a lot of relevant stuff - the threats posed by a surveillance state, the lack of online privacy, the morality of Edward-Snowden-like leakers and even the economic meltdown in Greece, which factors in when Bourne and an assassin get swept up in an Athens riot.

Watching the movie requires multitasking. You have to pay attention to multiple screens to keep the spatial relations straight while the camera is, in effect, yanking you around. Are the successive thrillers like "Jason Bourne" proof that our brains have evolved enough to follow multiple data streams at dizzying speeds? And if so, why did I leave the movie feeling brain damaged?

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be writer Jay McInerney. He became famous in the '80s for his semi-autobiographical novel "Bright Lights, Big City." His new novel, "Bright, Precious Days," is about middle age, marriage and fidelity. It's also about writing. One of the main characters is an editor and publisher.

I hope you'll join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.