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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Greengrass’

So, DC are releasing an antihero-themed wannabe-blockbuster and there’s a new Bourne sequel with Matt Damon in the cinema too: cripes, it’s like I’m back in August 2004 all over again. (I wonder if it’s possible to leave myself a note not to bother going to see Transformers? Somehow I doubt it.) I suppose this is a timely reminder that some things never really change.

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I suppose the key thing this time around is that Jason Bourne is the first film about that character in nine years, Damon, director Paul Greengrass, and Bourne himself all having excused themselves from participating in Tony Gilroy’s rather disappointing crack at a Bourne-free Bourne movie, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy. As I always seem to be saying, it took me a while to warm up to this series, and my review of the original 2002 movie is virtually the textbook case of my getting it very wrong indeed, but the prospect of a new outing from this team was always going to be a very enticing one.

Many years have passed since Bourne’s disappearance (the film appears to be set in 2015, but there is a degree of elastic movie time going on here – Bourne’s birth year is given as 1978, which is somewhat flattering to the 45-year-old Matt Damon, but it also seems to suggest that Bourne was going around topping folk in his early twenties, which somehow feels rather implausible) and a new generation of iffy projects is being cultivated by the top brass at the CIA. Determined to stop this, the CIA computers are hacked by Bourne’s old associate/handler Nicky (Julia Stiles) who downloads key files on his recruitment. The two of them hook up in riot-torn Athens, with the stolen files perhaps offering Bourne a way to reconnect with the world and find a reason for living beyond simply beating people up. But the CIA is determined to protect its secrets and mobilises its full array of resources against them…

Well, if you liked the previous Damon/Greengrass Bourne films you’re probably going to like this one, too. There is a sense in which it perhaps feels a bit formulaic in terms of the way the plot develops, but not to the point where it seriously impairs the film as a piece of serious entertainment. After the resounding phrrppp of the Jeremy Renner movie, it’s actually quite reassuring and cosy to find a film which hits so many of the familiar series beats: beady-eyed CIA analysts poised over computers, ‘Bring the Asset on-line,’ internet cafes, Matt Damon stalking purposefully out of airports and railway stations, ‘Eyes on target’, some wistful cor anglais during the character beats, a spectacularly destructive final chase sequence, Bourne displaying the kind of ability to soak up punishment normally only associated with Captain Scarlet or possibly Popeye the Sailor, Extreme Ways playing over the closing credits and so on. It doesn’t even matter that much that most of the characters are basically stock figures by this point – there is the grizzled CIA veteran (Tommy Lee Jones this time), the ambitious young operator (Alicia Vikander this time), and the fearsomely professional rival assassin whom Bourne is clearly going to have to engage in a deadly contest of skills at some point (Vincent Cassel this time).

I would happily turn up to any film featuring all these things, but the thing about the Bourne films was that they always had a bit more about them than the average action thriller, and the question is whether the new film has any reason to exist other than to profitably rehash elements of a well-regarded film franchise. Well, the jury is still thinking about that one, I suspect, for the plot of the film feels ever so slightly slapped together: the first two thirds are primarily about Bourne’s own past and his father’s hitherto-unsuspected role in the creation of the Treadstone Project, which feels more or less natural and justified – but for the final act and the climax they segue into an essentially unconnected plotline about internet privacy and the CIA infiltrating social network providers. This is the kind of hot-button topic that Paul Greengrass is clearly strongly drawn to, but it is a bit of a wrench given what precedes it, to say nothing of the fact that this kind of malevolent ubiquitous cyber-surveillance was the underwhelming Maguffin at the heart of SPECTRE, too.

I mean, this is still a superbly accomplished thriller, and miles better than the Renner movie, even if the major set pieces aren’t quite as stupendous as the ones in the previous films. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like it has the heart and soul of those films – it’s kind of searching for a reason to exist, which I suppose is Bourne’s own quest, but even so. As I said, it all feels just a little bit like a remix of the Bourne series’ greatest hits, something rather formulaic. Luckily, it’s a brilliant formula, and the result is a very satisfying piece of entertainment. The problem is that it’s inevitably going to draw comparisons with two of the very best thrillers of the last 15 years, and it simply isn’t quite up to the same standard. It says something about the older movies when the fact that this one is only a very good thriller qualifies as a disappointment.

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Despite all evidence to the contrary, not to mention (some might suggest) simple common sense, my favourite film of the year so far is still, probably, Cloud Atlas, simply for its utter courageous bonkersness. There’s one thing you can say about Tom Hanks, which is that he’s not afraid to go out on a limb once in a while and take on a less mainstream project than you might expect of someone who’s essentially one of the most respected mainstream movie actors on the planet. His latest film, Captain Phillips, is perhaps another example of this, being just a little more edgy and political than most.

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Then again, it’s directed by Paul Greengrass, maestro of the two best Bourne movies by far, and occupies the same sort of naturalistic geopolitical terrain. It is essentially an account of the true story of the coming together of two men, Richard Phillips (Hanks), master of a huge container ship with a crew of twenty, and Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), chief of a rather fragile dinghy with a complement of four AK-47 toting pirates.

We first see Phillips driving to the airport from his Vermont home, having a very banal conversation with his wife en route. We first see Muse in a remote part of Somalia, recruiting men for his latest expedition – the pirates have to bribe their way into a spot on the dinghy – and the story continues along these parallel lines until the pair finally come to face to face. Phillips’ latest assignment is to take his vessel around the horn of Africa from Oman to Mombasa, into pirate-infested waters.

It seems barely credible that a huge ship like Phillips’ could be seriously threatened by a tiny launch carrying only a handful of men, and this is perhaps reflected in the captain’s shock and incredulity as the pirates first appear on his radar (needless to say, Hanks portrays this well). The outcome of the pirates’ assault is by no means a foregone conclusion and the battle of wits between the two commanders is grippingly depicted and extremely tense. This is all the more impressive given that the movie’s own publicity makes it very clear that the pirates eventually get on board!

What follows concerns Phillips’ attempts to safeguard his ship and crew while deflecting Muse, who is equally determined to get back to Somalia with a big payday. What’s striking is the way that, initially at least, Phillips consistently underestimates Muse’s intelligence and determination. Considering the assymmetrical nature of the conflict, it seems fairly clear that Greengrass is, on some level, framing the film as an allegory for terrorist attacks on America. This is never much more than a subtext, however, and given how it all plays out (no spoilers, but the might of the US navy goes into action) it’s not exactly subversively presented.

The first half of Captain Phillips is superb – Greengrass is a master of this kind of grown-up thriller, and Hanks and Abdi are both excellent. The cagey interaction between the two captains is consistently gripping throughout the sequences set on the container ship.

However, the second half of the movie mostly takes place on a lifeboat commandeered by the pirates, in which Phillips is being held hostage, and this I found rather less successful. There’s a lot of arguing amongst the pirates as to what they’re going to do, the doings of various forces of the US military moving into position around them are also documented, and Hanks himself gets relatively little to do: though still the central figure of the drama, he’s reduced to being a passive figure, even a victim – and while Hanks gives this his best shot, you still get a sense of a movie not making best use of its greatest resource.

This is a serious film, not a popcorn action movie, and a slightly tough watch in places as a result. Nevertheless, the central story is interesting enough, and certainly well-enough told, for it to be a rewarding experience, even if it isn’t particularly innovative or thought-provoking. Certainly there’s no kind of moral relativism going on here – Muse gets some dialogue explaining how the pirates are really only fishermen forced into a new line of work by the pressures of globalisation, and bemoaning the lack of opportunity available to Somalis as opposed to Americans, but this isn’t much more than lip-service. (Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass gamely showed up on a UK news programme to discuss the film with a Somali activist complaining that it demonised all Somalis, as opposed to just the pirates.)

Then again, there’s a limit to how much you can make people who take over boats at gunpoint sympathetic. To be fair, Barkhad Abdi does a very good job of making a ruthless, desperate man into a human being rather than a bogeyman, and he holds the screen against Hanks’ star charisma impressively well. One suspects he may be in the running for the annual ethnic-diversity Best Supporting Actor fig-leaf nomination, but equally one can legitimately wonder exactly what kind of mainstream movie career he can look forward to: it’s hard to conceive of him getting a supporting role in a popcorn blockbuster or rom-com.

Anyway, this is a very well-made movie with strong performances, even if the first half is rather more engaging than the second. As a result it is solid rather than actually outstanding, but it’s still a quality piece of film-making.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 19th 2004:

Now, readers with long trousers and short shrift may recall that I was not particularly impressed with Doug Liman’s 2002 thriller The Bourne Identity. It had some things going for it but I felt that on the whole it was bit bland, and badly lacking in the lead performance department. As usual, everyone else in the world disagreed and the startling box office Bourne Identity racked up made a sequel virtually inevitable. And here it is: The Bourne Supremacy, directed by Paul Greengrass.

At the start of the movie, we find our favourite amnesiac hitman/youth hosteller Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in Goa with his main squeeze Marie (the bodacious Franka Potente), doing his best to remember who he is, all the while avoiding his former CIA employers and anyone else who might have a gripe about his former lifestyle.

Sadly all this comes to an end when Bad Guys frame Bourne for the murder of two men in Berlin, and send another, equally grumpy hitman (Karl Urban from Lord of the Rings – if I had a fiver for every time I’ve typed those last five words this summer…) to settle his hash. I hope I’m not spoiling this film for anyone when I reveal that Bourne does not get topped fifteen minutes in, but instead sets out to discover who it is that’s got it in for him, and exact a suitable vengeance upon them…

Everyone is likening the burgeoning Bourne franchise to the Bond phenomenon, which I suppose is understandable given that the Bond films have come to epitomise mainstream action movie-making, and both series are about spies. But the two really have very little in common, and I suppose the success of Bourne is because it does do something different with the genre. The Bourne Supremacy is in no way a conventional studio thriller: it’s dour, and naturalistic, and the plot is ferociously convoluted – I can speak only for myself, but I had to pay attention in order to keep track of who was double-crossing who and why. Bourne (played impressively well by Damon) is a sombre, grim figure, who barely speaks for most of the movie, let alone quips his way through action set-pieces. You feel a certain amount of sympathy for him, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be him.

This realism colours the entire movie: having seen it I’m pretty sure I could now track someone across Europe, avoiding police all the while, find out which hotel they were staying in, and sneak into their room and liquidate them with a rolled-up magazine and a toaster. Director Greengrass coats the whole thing in a patina of authenticity that’s very beguiling. That element of the movie which isn’t concerned with Bourne’s latest jaunt is mostly to do with internal CIA politics, as Bourne is hunted by Joan Allen’s senior agent, variously helped and hindered by Brian Cox and Julia Stiles (Cox and Stiles were apparently in the first one, not that I remember them at all). The performances here are equally solid and the storytelling assured: this is where most of the plot takes place, so that’s just as well.

But it’s not all wordiness, tradecraft and depression: one element of the original movie that really did impress me was its action sequences, and Supremacy surpasses it here too. Damon is extremely convincing in his fight sequences and Greengrass puts together an astonishingly good car chase for a man who started his career on the TV news show World in Action. There aren’t many sequences like this, but there are just enough to keep the movie going and they’re all executed pretty much flawlessly.

There’s barely a single joke in The Bourne Supremacy, it’s not an especially sunny or cheerful film, and the ending leaves all sorts of questions hanging in the breeze. And, to be honest, I’m really not sure if this kind of tone and style can be sustained over more than a couple of movies without it all getting terribly repetitive. But this is great stuff, one of the best movies of the summer: intelligent, focussed, and engrossing. Recommended.

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