Jason Bourne (2016)
Bourne Identity Crisis
I expected this reception... All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life?
-Monster to Doctor Frankenstein
-Monster to Doctor Frankenstein
Jason Bourne has a new problem. He’s had an old problem for five movies. That’s his new problem. The journey of self-discovery is inversely related to an audience’s interest in his quest. The kicks, punches, cuts, explosions are becoming more exquisite… and less compelling. The key to this movie franchise was violence in the service of righteous discovery. It has become special effects to mask self-indulgent realization. It is ironic that the bookend to this quintet would be the eponymous “Jason Bourne”. It might have been a subtle hint that the franchise is running out of bullets.
“The Bourne Identity” begot the “Supremacy” which gave rise to the “Ultimatum” which then left us the “Legacy”. It would seem this would be a fitting place for Jason to stand on his laurels… or disappear into the unremitting hell of being the Platonic ideal of a soldier who has lost the will to fight. Fittingly “Jason Bourne” begins with our hero attempting suicide via a series hand to hand combat encounters. He is a pick-up fighter pitted against desperate pugilists in the grim, war-torn ghettoes of stateless no man lands. There is a plot twist which brings him back to face his old creators/enemies. It involves a love interest who discloses that there is more to his family story. This is an interesting choice as audience veterans of the previous tetralogy would have thought this plot line was long past bearing fruit. Those suspicions were well-founded The denouement is as tiresome as watching the never-ending fisticuffs and pyrotechnics.
Are you sitting down. This film revolves around a discovery about…. Jason’s FATHER. Not to divulge state secrets but it is less riveting than Luke Skywalker’s paternal surprise. If this series need a re-boot they should have stayed clear of the family closet. Jason is, once again, punching his way to answers about his tormented conception. The conceit is that somehow a thorough understanding of his history would alleviate his existential torment. This is a curious premise given that the spy business rests on fluidity of character and alliances. The film series lays out a bi-polar world in which Jason is good, albeit abused and troubled. His creators are a bottomless pit of mendacity. The drama has ossified around this divide. “Jason Bourne” is…. boring. There I said it. The franchise creators needed to go undercover within Jason himself rather than reenforcing “the innocent duped” narrative. The freshness of Jason’s self-discovery and the revelations about his “origins” cannot be sustained through five feature length films. As family secrets become stale the fireworks get louder. This latest installment contains one of the most technically impressive car chase scenes ever filmed. It is a feast for the male adolescent audience member. Adults, however, yearn for the excitement of the human drama.
The Bourne films masquerade in the action/adventure genre but are a re-envisioning of Frankenstein saga. Men of power attempt to play God via the scientific method. They use technology to create perfectly programmed beings. This is an old story and the results are always troubling. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, the prison reformers in “A Clockwork Orange”, the creators of the the $6 million man or the Stepford Wives, Dr. Nathan from “Ex Machina” are all members of this misguided fraternity of God-like scientists. Sentient beings possess the ability to empathize. This trait is inconvenient for programmers.
In the Bourne series the security chiefs discover this flaw when Jason goes off the grid in the first film. The event that prompts his breakdown is the unexpected appearance of a child on the lap of his target. This triggers the chase that has lasted for 5 feature films. Jason’s refusal to kill the innocent leads to his metaphorical parents wishing to commit infanticide. He is now the sacrificial lamb for national security. The cleverness of the plot revolved around Bourne’s recovering his amnesia while trying to gauge foe and friend. Unfortunately Jason has morphed from Frankenstein’s monster contemplating humanity to a combination of Rambo and MacGyver seeking revenge against horrible parents. Tragedy is now revenge fantasy. Romance is now pornography.
Jason Bourne needs to be reborn. The only path is to shift his moral compass. This involves a re-visiting of the ‘road to Damascus’ moment. What is Bourne relationship with the dark side? The seeds for another conversion are already in place. Spies are nick-named ‘spooks’ for a reason. Their work is rooted in the un-human and inhumane. Their consciences can be eased by the canard that “it’s all for the good”. The series sees Bourne questioning the cause and re-discovering his selfless, patriotic, civic ideal. But what if that past is merely another cover? Would it be foolish to believe that the original Jason was without flaw? Might there be a trace of glory-hunting or an unhealthy desire to ‘neutralize’ the bad guys? Here is the key to breathing life into the moribund premise. The arduousness of life on the run leads to a full embrace of the material world. Some might see as antithetical to his character. It is the malleability of Bourne’s core personality, however, that is the true gristmill of the drama. Sadly the producers have lost themselves in the flash. In this last film Jason is not missing in action. He’s missing in the action.
“Jason Bourne” needs to be acknowledged as technically first rate in terms of production value and acting. Alicia Vikander is wonderful as the kinder, gentler amoral intelligence executive. She has chemistry with Matt Damon who never fails to bring dignity to the role. Even after five features you feel for his character. Tommy Lee Jones is the embodiment of the self-righteous, fascist, paternalistic, security state. Strangely he seems to have over-played his hand in that his Southern charm was subsumed by a Rumsfeld bureaucratic swagger. It needed more of Tommy and less of Donald. The aforementioned Las Vegas car scene is a tour-de-force of automobile carnage. These sequence have their roots in Steve Macqueen’s 1968 “Bullitt” and are a mainstay of Bollywood and Honk Kong action films. The tradition continues in “Jason Bourne” as there are a number of magnificent motorcycle and foot chases that proceed the Vegas bacchanal. If fists and fireworks are your bailiwick, “Jason Bourne” delivers. If you are interested in a drama that has resonance beyond the movie theater, you need to watch the earlier films in this series.
There is a final sequence which summarizes the emptiness behind the adrenaline rush. Bourne makes a point of unmasking someone he had trusted as an ally throughout the story. This occurs just as he returns to the oblivion (and safety) of anonymity. He makes sure that they know “he’s on to them”. Unfortunately this amplifies Jason’s pettiness, rather than his sagacity. He, and the producers, have mistaken Bourne for an avenging angel. In truth he is Lucifer, the fallen one. The nuance in the relationship is the lifeblood of his story. Pure good and absolute evil have no place in this struggle. Bourne has, single handedly, murdered nearly 30 people that the State designated as expendable. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, in verbal exposition, reminds everyone of this fact. The audience should not feel sorry for Jason as he returns to his ghost world. Nor should Jason begrudge his ally for wanting to kill him if he becomes expendable. To quote the character Hyman Roth from the “Godfather II”, “This is the business we’ve chosen”. It is ironic that after all this time the makers of the Bourne series have forgotten Jason’s identity. The rage of a spurned child should not be masked in a shroud of decency, no matter the legitimacy of his struggle. Dr. Frankenstein’s treatment of his creation might have earned him the murder of his close relatives…. but the monster was never anything but… a monster. Jason Bourne became a designated killing machine, but what role was he playing prior to his brainwashing? How different was he from the bureaucrat who was willing to liquidate him when he lost his usefulness? Jason and the producers need to remember the Godfather’s words to the corrupt politician, “we are BOTH part of the same hypocrisy, Senator”. Recalling that realization won’t bring solace to Bourne, but it will endlessly reward fans of this film franchise.
Note: a thank you to Erica Da Costa for drawing the link between Frankenstein’s monster and Jason Bourne.