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MovieBob Reviews: Jason Bourne

Yes, I’m the one: “That guy” who doesn’t like the Jason Bourne movies. I’d go so far as to say I fucking hate the franchise… but I’m from Boston and we’ve all kind of agreed to always try our hardest to give Matt and Ben and the Wahlberg brothers the benefit of the doubt – I mean, not really, but it sort of feels like it.

But yeah, I have always been completely baffled by what’s supposed to be so fascinating about the Bourne movies, because from where I sit it’s basically been four installments – now five, counting the Damonless “sidequel” The Bourne Legacy (which I do, because it’s only just as bad as the others) – worth of mediocre versions of hypothetically decent elements that never add up to a whole. The story isn’t especially interesting, the action isn’t all that inventive or well-choreographed (even with the “look, not everything can be The Raid” curve) and Paul Greengrass’ pseudo-verite documentary style staging is a really bad fit for it even if it was. It’s nowhere near Matt Damon’s best performance and as a character Jason Bourne is just another moody self-pitying schlub whose one-note grumping is meant to be mistaken for depth – at least they gave Christian Bale a Batman costume to do that schtick in.

But what always rankled my nerves most was this idea Bourne was the “thinking man’s action series,” because it was such a patently bullshit designation since this series barely has an equivalent amount to substantively say about the politics of espionage as the Captain America movies – except that series doesn’t turn around and pretend to be some Oliver Stone/JFK-level thinkpiece.

Let’s be honest: The reason we were supposed to treat the Bourne series like it’s some next-level thing intellectually wasn’t because it was the “smarter” action series, it’s because it was “the” Bush-era American action series with the correct politics. Because the first one came out in 2002 and everyone was still shell-shocked from 9/11 and people – especially in the film press! – were worried that we were going to get a deluge of uncomfortable hyper-patriotic action-hero jingoism. So when The Bourne Identity showed up with a bad-ass spy who fights the corrupt military-industrial complex instead of stereotypical terrorists it was this big oasis-in-desert “exhale” moment where said film press could finally unclench.

And Bourne himself remains without a doubt the ideal ersatz “Jack Bauer” figure for guilty liberals looking for a “have your cake” cop-out. The premise is that he was actually a regular David Webb who got brainwashed by “Not-Halliburton” and turned into an emotionless CIA killing-machine called Jason Bourne, but after a bout with amnesia he now he remembers the truth (or at least most of what’s not the truth) and fights back against his former masters. So you still get the macho fantasy of this All-American, movie star-lookin’, extralegal-assassinatin’ badass… but he acknowledges that it’s wrong, he’s really sad about it, the movie gets to grandstand about geopolitics and, hey, all those murders aren’t “really” his fault because they messed with his brain. Hooray for zero culpability! 

Now, credit where due – at least it seemed to end well in The Bourne Ultimatum since, when Jason Bourne finally tracks down the guy who forced him to become Jason Bourne, it turns out to have been… Jason Bourne; i.e. nobody “forced” him, he’d actually wanted to be an unfeeling killbot for Uncle Sam. Good ending! I mean, the franchise is still mediocre and self-important, but at least it ended with integrity.

So of course the first thing this new “relaunch” of the brand does is to undo that integrity, as Damon’s mopey monosyllabic murder-machine recovers another memory and realizes that the whole reason he was compelled to sign up to be turned into Bourne was because his father was killed in a terrorist attack – but maybe it wasn’t a real attack but rather something the evil government people staged in order to trick him into joining a program he was already being “scouted” for. So, yeah, fuck integrity, we’re right back to Jason Bourne: Zero-Culpability Emo Face-Puncher Man. Terrific.

The “point” seems to be leaving the franchise in a place where they continue making more sequels every time Matt Damon wants to go off and do an indie project but still afford to live like Matt Damon the rest of the year; and to that end the secondary “plot” outside of Bourne’s truth quest is basically this embarrassingly big sloppy ass-kiss to the tech-crowd/Wikileaks/”hacktivist” set: After being drawn back into the spy world, Bourne has to stop evil government guy Tommy Lee Jones (now there’s some outside the box casting, huh?) from murdering this Zuckerberg-esque social-media startup executive who’s about to renege on a deal to let the CIA spy on his user data. And yes, that does mean that all of the big spy sequences now involve rooms full of anonymous assholes furiously bashing computer-keys, taking Bluetooth earpieces in and out and shouting “Enhance!!!” at low-resolution digital video stills as though CSI: Cyber had never gone off the air.

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Truth be told, it really all just feels like an excuse to introduce Alicia Vikander as a new recurring morally-ambiguous female co-star (and maybe sort-of nemesis for the next one?) since apparently poor Julia Stiles has “aged-out” of a franchise where we’re elsewhere asked to buy 45 year-old Matt Damon as a jacked-up badass who goes around knocking out Serbian prizefighters with one punch – yeah, sure.

I will concede that Jones gets in some solid deadpans (what the fuck else is he here for?) and it ends with a pretty solid car chase and fist-fight between Damon and otherwise wasted Vincent Cassel which might’ve been something incredible if there was any reason to give a shit. Otherwise, there’s just not a whole lot going on here. I’ve been alone in the wilderness for like 14 years as “the guy” who can’t fucking stand the Bourne movies, but this one feels so especially void of form or purpose outside of a movie star in need of a fallback franchise that maybe – just maybe! – I won’t be too lonely for much longer.

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