This makes action heroes the most pitiable subjects of this; they are trapped in a Nietzschean hell of repeating the most extreme actions over and over again with little to no effect. What must it feel like to keep losing the love of your life the same way over and over? To keep vanquishing the same villains only to have them continuously return? It takes something which should be rousing and inspiring and reduces it to the banal.
Which brings us to Jason Bourne.
Once upon a time they were predicated on bringing the banal into the spy thriller – giving up evil masterminds for agendas set by bureaucrats working out of tiny huddle rooms. Bourne (Damon) himself was a man unsure of who he was and (not liking what he found out) trying to create a new sense of self. As a stand-alone action film, it was great; as a set up for an ongoing franchise it was problematic in that the lead character didn’t really want to be in action films (even if he was really, really good at it). To deal with that more and more insidious purposes had to be created to drag him back into the limelight.
Initially it worked by increasing his failures and disorientation and increasing the level of corruption around him, while simultaneously exploring the idea of a man coming to grips with the fact that he was once an evil person (or at least a doer of evil deeds) and trying to make amends. But five films in it’s become a parody of itself. The CIA, in the Bourne universe, is filled only with the venal who seem to spend most of their time trying to kill or silence anyone who may have learned of the misdeeds they’ve done in service of their country and little time actually doing said service.
In the newest film that face is given to CIA director Dewey (Jones) who needs to kill Bourne to keep him from seeking revenge. Really the only ones who have it worse than the heroes are the villains as they are predestined to fail but must still keep doing the same things (usually for the same reasons) over and over again.
The newest craze is yet another secret program which no one in the government (but everyone in the CIA) knows about – Ironhand – designed to use a sort of Facebook or Second Life-type social platform to spy on everyone, all the time. Co-writer/director Paul Greengrass, who made the series’ most popular segments, wants very much to contrast Bourne’s actions against problems he sees in Europe and America, setting actions sequences against the post-recession civil unrest in Greece or the Edward Snowden-revealed digital spying.
But he also has to injest the idea (growing since 2004’s The Bourne Supremecy) that all elites are basically corrupt and using everyone for their own gain as evidenced by the fictional CIA’s continued use of illegal programs which would put its members in jail if they were discovered. It’s juxtaposition which misses the real problem with these issues – they weren’t made by a handful of secret conspirators but knowingly at every level of government and there is no redress for them – and makes clear these films are not good platforms for those ideas. Bourne doesn’t expose problems so much as crash through them on his way to some other goal.
That used to be one of the great quirks of the Bourne series; for all the skill and tradecraft on display, they were really exercises in ineptness. As a character he has rarely had any idea what was actually going on in a given film and was usually only clued in by his enemy’s unnecessary attempts to proactively prevent him from interfering. It was part of what was refreshing about the series at first, but after five films it stops being interesting and starts becoming inane.
The first film of the franchise not to have some input from writer Tony Gilroy (who was solely or partly responsible for the screenplay of all the previous films), Bourne comes across only as a recitation of elements from the previous. Once again he drifts through life without purpose, tormented by suppressed memories of terrible events from his past. Once again an old flame is sacrificed to get him on the hunt for revenge. Once again his knowledge of lists of acronyms makes the government afraid of him. Once again a smart analyst deep within the CIA (Vikander) senses Bourne may be more than a threat and wants to capture rather than kill him.
The chase is really the thing — an extended fight through the Las Vegas strip between a muscle car and an armored vehicle being the true highlight of Jason Bourne — and no one seems fussed to provide more. Betrayals and double crosses come along so thick and the plot becomes so labyrinthine, it’s impossible to keep any of it straight for long because it’s clear it doesn’t matter.
Greengrass and co-writer/editor Christopher Rouse are intent on what you feel during a given moment but care less about whether the scenes make sense together. The thematic resonance of refrain and eternal return becomes a noose which chokes the life out of a good idea or worse, a trap which can’t be escaped.
It may be too much to ask for steady and increasing curves in genre or mis-en-scene (witness the quick fall of the Riddick franchise when the second film came out), but a refusal to grow will have the same outcome eventually. What was supposed to be a return to form for the series after the identity crisis of The Bourne Legacy is instead a franchise low point. It shamelessly recycles better ideas from better films without any real idea why they worked in the first place.
Worse, it proves conclusively that the people making these films are only capable of looking to the past, they have no idea what Jason Bourne should actually do next. Physics tells us we’re all doomed to lose the battle to entropy but these kinds of films aren’t helping us momentarily escape that awareness. They’re making it impossible to ignore.
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