(Video on Demand, December 2016) This was a nearly useless movie in more than one way. After running the shakycam trilogy to its natural conclusion, The Bourne Legacy came and went without making much of an impact, its frantic chase sequences unable to paper over a lack of ideas. Much of the same will also be said about Jason Bourne and Matt Damon’s return to the franchise. Despite intriguing concepts reflecting the modern world in a thriller (in which riots in Greece, drone surveillance and cell phone hacking are considered to be normal), the film doesn’t do much but repeat ideas previously explored in earlier entries, and does so with the nigh-unbearable quick-cutting spastic camera style that is Paul Greengrass’ biggest problem. (There was, a few weeks before the film’s release, a making-of clip showing a camera and stunt cars smoothly weaving through traffic on the Las Vegas Strip. Cruelly, this sequence has been chopped to mush in the finished film.) For a movie as smart as it thinks it is, Jason Bourne can occasionally be tone-deaf: There’s a sequence early in the film where a businessman gets a round of applause from journalists for stating “our products will never spy on you”, whereas in the real world the reaction would be raised eyebrows followed by frantic attempts to disprove him. I’m also nonplussed by the dumb decision to kill off a long-running supporting character for what is apparently no good reason. And so it is with Jason Bourne: things happen for no good reason, except printing money from a series that most people remember. At this time, it looks as if the film was a modest financial success, virtually ensuring that we’ll get another equally useless new instalment in two or three years.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) Director Paul Greengrass has carved himself a niche as someone willing to engage contemporary real-life issues in a highly naturalistic style. The approach isn’t always successful (the shakycam thing gets annoying quickly) but his last few movies have shown increasing polish, real-world relevance and surprising thrills. So it is that Captain Phillips tackles the real-life story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama cargo ship hijacking through the story of its captain Richard Phillips. As one expects from a Greengrass film, Captain Phillips takes a realistic approach to its material, delving into the minutiae of modern maritime shipping, presenting events in a deceptively unglamorous light and using handheld cameras whenever possible. (Which, thankfully, isn’t possible in establishing helicopter shots) Still, despite the rough images, there’s no mistaking the heroic dramatic arc of the protagonist, or the careful construction of the script. This is meant to be a punched-up version of reality (something that minor controversies surrounding the film have made clear) that, despite an unheroic climax in which the lead character demonstrates a textbook example of shock, is meant to leave viewers reassured. It works well: the film manages to combine real-world details with old-school suspense and thrills, leading to a result that feels both real and satisfying –especially in portraying how the Alabama tries to defend itself against pirates. Tom Hanks initially seems wasted as the everyman titular captain Phillips, but the role and Hanks’ portrayal get more complex and difficult as the film advances, leading to a final sequence that’s as fearless as anything the actor’s been asked to portray to date. Relative newcomer Barkhad Abdi also makes an impression as antagonist Muse, bringing some humanity to a role that could have been played as caricature. While Captain Phillips runs a bit overlong (especially during its third act, which seems to be purposefully repetitive), it’s a fine docu-drama and a refreshing antidote to so many overblown Hollywood thrillers.
(In theatres, March 2010) Politically-motivated action films are rare and precious, so I am unapologetic in liking Green Zone a lot more than I should given my distaste for Paul Greengrass’s shaky-cam style. His politics are in the right place, but his habit of giving jobs to spastic cameramen can be tough to tolerate, especially in early dialogue scenes. Yet despite the firefights, this story is largely about the way a loyal soldier comes to realize the ways the US government has lied about WMDs in Iraq. It’s also a damning portrait of the way the US acted during its first year as an invader: Using Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City as inspiration for its setting leads to one of the best digitally-enhanced portrait of occupied Baghdad so far. Matt Damon is surprisingly credible as the soldier whose questions lead to unpleasant realizations, and one action sequence featuring helicopter surveillance feels as uniquely contemporary as Greengrass’s own Bourne Ultimatum London chase sequence. Still, this may be a film not only for those who can spot the Judith-Miller-inspired patsy journalist or the not-Ahmed-Chalabi puppet figurehead, but those who can both explain De-Baathification and why it was so badly implemented. For savvy political observers, Green Zone feels like a swift Cliff’s Notes version of recent history, or a version of No End in Sight with far many more gunfights. While the dramatic arc of the script feels ordinary (although the American-on-American conflicts are a nice touch), it’s its dramatization of recent bleeding history that’s most rewarding. It so confidently states what many Americans are still reluctant to affirm despite piles of evidence to the contrary that it becomes a minor revelation of what filmmaking can still do –especially in non-American hands. In this context, trolling the politically-driven negative reviews for the film becomes entertainment in its own right. In the meantime, Green Zone goes to join The Kingdom and Lord of War as examples of how enjoyable action filmmaking can back up a socially-conscious theme, and not be much more than half a decade behind current events.