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Friday, August 5, 2016

JASON BOURNE Review(ish): The Past Is Eating Our Movies Alive

There are two plots running concurrently in this year's subpar return to the the Bourne franchise, Jason Bourne. In one, Jason and former CIA analyst-turned-hacker Nicky Parsons uncover a new slew of CIA black ops programs meant to spy on and potentially assassinate American citizens without oversight or knowledge, including one that finds the CIA director personally blackmailing and ordering the assassination of a Silicon Valley CEO trying to safeguard his tech company against governmental overreach; in the other, Jason and former CIA analyst-turned-hacker Nicky Parsons uncover a dossier linking Jason's father to the founding of Treadstone, the black ops program that created him, and a suggestion that his father was assassinated in order to bring Jason into the fold. One of these stories is an interesting and timely thriller; one is a rote superhero origin we've seen a thousand times before. You can guess which one Jason Bourne devotes the majority of its runtime too.

This has been a problem with Bourne movies since their inception, of course; Jason Bourne is a reluctant hero (because of course he is; Save The Cat! said he had to be) who only gets involved in these plots when the stakes get personal. But previous films did a much better job of tying in Jason's story with the much more interesting national security plots, which made it easier to ignore the two different masters the films had to serve. More to the point, Bourne trilogy was genuinely thrilling, with killer action and some of the finest chases filmed in the 2000s, and that goes a long way to distract.

But Jason Bourne has none of that, with director Paul Greengrass' shakycam seeming less like controlled chaos and more like he just didn't really care what he was filming, and so the seams begin to show. As I sat there, listening to the film's climactic, viscerally brutal fight that was almost impossible to follow visually, I wondered: Who is Jason Bourne? Why should I care about him and his adventures? What does he enjoy doing? What kind of music does he listen to? Where does he like to eat? Is he religious? Does he listen to podcasts?

And that's when I realized: For all the deeply personal stakes of the Bourne movies, every single one of which is about him on every level, I have no idea who this guy is. Instead of giving the character a... well, character, they just dug into the his backstory in a very rote way and hoped that would pass for characterization. And they're not the only ones.

You can see this all over the modern pop culture landscape.  If James Bond is always defined by his times - from Cold Warrior to renegade cop to ultra-slick masculine icon - then what has most defined the Daniel Craig run? Three of the four films have essentially dug into Bond's origin. How did he become 007? Who made him so hostile to women? Where did he grow up? Did he have family? What became of his adoptive brother? Previously, Bond films were about the world around him; modern ones are about Bond's own past coming back relentlessly to haunt him. It builds 'character' in a technical sense by giving a person a past, but it doesn't actually tell us much about the character unless the film really follows through, ties those themes into the film itself. Casino Royale did so; Spectre was an utter failure in this regard. Star Trek '09 was about a bizarre, decades-long revenge scheme by the man who killed Kirk's dad; nevermind his genocide on the Vulcans, this is personal. Star Wars basically invented this trend for modern audiences, a huge, star-sweeping saga that's basically about the shitty things one family keeps doing to each other.

In case you couldn't tell by this post in which I studiously avoid talking about Jason Bourne, well, it's just not a good movie. While The Bourne Identity recreated the spy thriller for the modern era and is basically responsible for the whole of Craig-era Bond and The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum perfected that formula with two of the decade's best thrillers, Jason Bourne spends its whole movie chasing trends rather than making them. This is a movie you've seen a thousand times before, a rote, pedestrian action thriller that mostly seems to exist so the rights to the source material don't expire. The only thing keeping this alive at all is Alicia Vikander's scheming Heather Lee, a CIA player with her own agenda, but even she never quite manages to pop here with the authority that Julia Stiles' Nicky always used to. Tommy Lee Jones is virtually asleep as the ultra-generic Director of the CIA, who leads Vincent Cassel's Asset in a series of assassinations. Both of them, of course, have secret, mysterious, utterly predictable ties to Bourne's past. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) is solid as a Silicon Valley genius in over his head, but he's so sidelined that he's barely in the movie except in a handful of Tommy Lee Jones' scenes.

And I could blame a lot of things for Jason Bourne's problems, but as I watched, it seemed more and more like the film's obsession with the modern trend of making the threat 'personal' without ever giving us a person to care about was at the core of the film's many problems. Sure, the camera work isn't great and there isn't really a chase as inspired as The Bourne Ultimatum's multi-tiered Madrid scene, but really, my biggest problem is that the film is lazy. It thinks we'll want the villains defeated because they killed Jason's dad, never stopping to examine that they're also executing innocent citizens on American soil and hey maybe that's worth stopping because it's wrong, not because it hurt Jason's feelings when he was little. There's a sense that studios heard us complaining about every damn movie being about the fate of the world and having these massive, impersonal stakes, and the best solution anyone could come up with to fix the problem wasn't scaling the stakes back but saying, "But, like... what if the hero's dad did it?"

James Bond could morph from a rakish adventurer to a Cold Warrior to a renegade cop, changing with the times and the genre conventions without sacrificing the core of his character - a suave, charming ladies man who represents the absolute finest in old British money with sociopathic vigor. Can Jason Bourne? Four films in, and his most defining (and intensifying) trait so far has been mild disinterest at getting involved with any of his own movies. At this rate, and assuming the movies stay profitable, I'd say we're about ten years and three entries from Bourne Again, in which Jason's illegitimate son is tasked with hunting him down to prevent Jason from accidentally exposing Project Fist Monger's plan to turn our superphones into pocket bombs with whatever new, hot mid-20s actress is a hacker now. In fact, Universal, if you need a script, give me a call...
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