In 2007, Jon Stewart asked Matt Damon if another Bourne movie was in the works. Damon said that they’d have to call the film The Bourne Redundancy.
This past summer’s Jason Bourne was some of that and then some. Suffering from a menagerie of plot elements—the screenplay tried to address everything from Wikileaks to Facebook—the Bourne film was overstuffed, but that wasn’t the only problem. The main tropes of the Bourne films involve how an amnesiac super-spy has a bunch of car chases, fights with household weapons, and outwits people in rooms with a bunch of computer screens while cool techno music plays in the background. To tie these elements together, the original trilogy of films used the conceit of Bourne learning something about his past to lend the film emotional weight and character development. These narrative-through lines elevated the action-thriller series from the mindlessness of most other rivals.
Jason Bourne botches the reveal about his past, that his dad didn’t want him to join the CIA, (who cares?), but the issue with the script isn’t there. At this point the reveal is a trope, and not the narrative-crux we’ve come to expect, and so the bit about his dad is a placeholder.
The real issue is how the film tries to make the urgency of this installment outweigh all the previous ones, a pattern endemic to Hollywood blockbusters, which just so happen to be all sequels nowadays—making a phenomenon I call The Bourne Escalation something that will affect cinemagoers for years to come.
Case in point—apparently Bourne needs motivation to kill an assassin who is trying to kill him. This film’s asset, played by French dude Vincent Cassel, apparently killed Bourne’s dad, so Bourne has a personal axe to grind. But not only, in this film, does Bourne need to kill the assassin, the assassin needs to kill him, because Bourne’s whistleblowing in Ultimatum screwed the assassin over in Syria. Not Syria!! (This movie makes so many attempts to be current it is painful. Greek austerity protests? A national security and privacy roundtable with the CIA director and Mark Zucker-Jobs? It’s too much.)
It begs the question of whether these personal stakes are even necessary. All you need is a man tasked to kill Bourne and Bourne’s self-defense to motivate these scenes.
But the problem runs deeper, as this film reeks of Hollywood’s need to make the main villain more villainous than the previous film’s villain—usually through retroactive continuity. In the first few movies, the CIA guys were played by Chris Cooper and Brian Cox, Brian Cox and Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Albert Finney and Scott Glenn, and then Edward Norton, for some reason. Each successive CIA villain was more of a “mastermind” of the whole thing than the first one. And in Tommy Lee Jones as the latest CIA director we have, apparently, the ultimate mastermind, because he ordered the kill on Bourne’s dad, thus setting in motion like, literally, all the events.
You can see the writers scrambling to make things somehow more important. It reminds us of the other JB spy franchise—James Bond—and Spectre’s spectacular failure in terms of elevating Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld to the OG-villain-status.
In the climax of Spectre, Waltz, as head of Spectre, apparently sent the villains of the previous three films to fight James Bond, as developed by the fact that Bond has to walk by posters of their faces on his way up to the top of a building to confront Waltz for the last time. Visually and extremely obtuse, the screenwriters telegraph to the audience that yeah, we planned these movies to be connected the whole time! If you listen closely, you can even hear their nervous giggles, Maybe they won’t notice when this doesn’t really add up?
But the most ridiculous part of Waltz’s Blofeld deals with personal stakes, again. It is revealed that Blofeld decided to torture Bond for four movies by threatening world security in various ways, but not because he’s power-hungry. It was because Blofeld’s dad raised Bond after his parents died, and Blofeld’s dad liked Bond better. So Blofeld was so jealous that he killed his dad and faked his own death and decided to become the supervillain of all supervillains—not really to rule the world or anything—but to make James Bond’s life miserable. Really?
This kind of thing worked in The Incredibles—but only because it was a self-contained movie. Mr. Incredible’s rejection of wannabe sidekick Buddy Pine leads him to become Syndrome and become a villain to torment Mr. Incredible and his superhero family. This worked. Syndrome didn’t hide in the shadows for four movies to be written in at the last minute.
All the same, the problem of escalation—and giving such escalation personal motivation—is now everywhere, in all blockbuster movies. The Force Awakens has a bigger-than-big Death Star, and Kylo Ren and Han Solo have some unfinished family business (but I suppose this is endemic, or the whole point, of the Star Wars saga). In the The Dark Knight Rises, Bane one-ups the Joker by trying to nuke Gotham City, as opposed to fighting for something so prosaic as “Gotham’s soul.” After two Avengers movies and countless Marvel spin-offs, it’s become clear the Avengers save the world too easily, and in Captain America: Civil War, they have to save the world from themselves. Again.
But at least in Jason Bourne, you get to see Matt Damon dodge Molotov cocktails in Greece, take phone calls with Alicia Vikander, and confront Tommy Lee Jones in his Las Vegas suite. You also get to see a character fed up with killing people inadvertently maiming a great deal of government employees. And to be honest, with all that pulse-pounding music, it’s still sort of exhilarating, in its own way.