Matt Damon has played his eponymous hero, Jason Bourne, since 2002’s ‘Bourne Identity’, finishing the third of the films, the ‘Bourne Ultimatum’, in 2007. Mr. Damon apparently intended never again to reprise the role, which he thought he had exhausted, claiming that any future film could only be title the ‘Bourne Redundancy’.
Well, I guess money talks, with the mortgage on a mansion or two to fund, for Mr. Damon nearly a decade on has indeed taken on the Bourne mantle once again in the recent outing, simply called ‘Jason Bourne’, a slick but stale venture which sums up much of what is wrong with modern Hollywood.
The visuals of this film display full big-budget, exotic locales, money shots, stunt scenes, but the narrative limps, with little imagination, not much point, various plot devices spun out of thin air, and our ageing hero, albeit still of fine fettle as one commentator put it, bloodied, battered and bourne again, going through the motions.
But we have seen it all before, more than once, and what is ‘new’ seems there just to make things seem, well, ‘new’. For some reason, we first find Jason making his living bare-knuckle boxing in distant, vaguely eastern desert locations. Why and how is never disclosed. He mumbles something at one point about ‘just surviving’, but one would think with his advanced skill set, he could do far more lucrative undercover work.
Then there is the scene, stolen right out of the first of the recent Sherlock Holmes films (and that’s another story) where Bourne is getting battered in one fight, when the Attractive Woman from the Past shows up in the crowd (former CIA operative Nikki Parsons, played by Julia Styles), and our hero, seeing her face, suddenly and easily dispatches his opponent (with less finesse and intelligence than Holmes).
Parsons plays almost no role in this plot, except to download secret files for yet-another black-ops CIA scheme, with the plan to ‘expose’ them, Wiki-leaks style, even after she dies early on in an implausible quasi-suicide for the cause (I guess she wanted out of this franchise, Baywatch-Pamela Anderson-style). As one CIA guy later laughably declares later on, ‘It’s worse than Snowden’. Then, inexplicably, this whole McGuffin seems quietly forgotten part way through the film, dropped into its own sort of black-hole-ops.
Perhaps I quibble, for there are deeper problems with this mashed up mess. Tommy Lee Jones, looking like the walking dead stumbling and mumbling towards another big supporting actor payout, laconically lurches his way through the ‘really evil CIA director’ shtick, with almost no nuance. Jones may be a patriot at heart, but it’s all black inside. There he is, having his own highly-trained, and expensive, innocent and loyal men killed without a qualm, like some tin-pot dictator, all to pin it on Bourne.
The antagonist assassin, mysteriously named ‘the Asset’, of course some guy with a mysterious past and a British accent, is also a caricature. In the chaotic, climactic final chase scene, he steals a SWAT truck, chased by Bourne, and plows through dozens of vehicles and sidewalks at full speed, killing, maiming who knows how many innocents. And we’re supposed to cheer? After the attacks in Germany and Paris, that seems a little too true to life. Oh, and by the way, said British assassin also killed Bourne’s father, just as dear Dad was trying to convince Bourne not to become a killer in the CIA, like he was, or might have been. Well, wouldn’t you know? Irony of ironies…
Which brings me to Bourne, and what they do with him. The whole point of this franchise was that Bourne was the ‘assassin with a conscience’, or, rather, one whose conscience is reawakened in the first film by seeing his intended target’s children, just as he is about to exterminate with extreme prejudice, as the lingo has it. Yet here is Bourne not only blatantly killing people, but formally participating in the deaths of who knows how many others, all to get revenge. The final scene of the last of the (supposed) trilogy had a chastened and repentant Bourne seeking forgiveness from the daughter of a man he had killed, and for all of the deaths he had caused. Now what?
In a final sop, there is a nod to the new millennial generation, with Alicia Vikander playing the ‘new’ kindlier kind of CIA operative, gentler, more open to speaking and dialoguing (but lying without compunction), facilely convinced of Bourne’s innocence and good intentions by flipping through a few of his files.
Thrown into this soup is also a sort of fictional FaceBook corporation, ‘Deep Dream’, run not by Zuckerberg, but by some individual of vaguely Middle Eastern origin, ‘Aaron Kaloor’, that Tommy Lee and the CIA want to co-opt, so they can spy on ‘everyone, everywhere’. Mr. Kaloor resists, of course, for freedom and privacy are key. Who would not dispute with that? But there is this undertone of anti-authoritarianism, of ‘can’t we all just get along’, that open borders, geographic and otherwise, will lead to an era of peace, good-will and understanding. What matters what your creed, religion, culture is? Kum-by-ah and log on, my friend. The ‘old America’ is gone, as time-lined and worn as Tommy Lee’s face. The future belongs to the soft and youthful, with no hang-ups, not much in the way of principles, besides an inchoate ‘tolerance’, tolerating everything except intolerance. Hmm. But if you don’t have anything to die for, then you have not much to live for either.
Perhaps I doth read too much into this, for I don’t think the creators of this film themselves thought all that much, which is the fundamental problem. Such films, the bulk of what Hollywood produces, are all show, no substance, no moral, no intent, no overarching narrative. Just put together a series of scenes, strung together by a thin and contradictory plot that seems made up as they went along, and hope for the best. And by ‘best’ means not intrinsic quality, art worthy of the name, but a profit margin that justifies the very making of such films. So long as mediocrity sells, mediocrity will be made.
At times, I wish I had Bourne’s amnesia.