(Updated with additional thoughts from CJ below)
Kevin: Nearly 10 years since the release of the third and supposedly final “Bourne” entry in 2007, “Jason Bourne” hit theaters last summer to remind me of everything I find annoying about this franchise. I know these movies have a devoted fan base, but I’ve never been able to understand why, considering they all repeat the same exact story beats to an almost “Groundhog Day”-level degree: Jason Bourne tries to track down some tiny bit of information about his forgotten past, gets numerous people killed and endangers national security, engages in a climactic car chase with a nameless assassin, and walks into the sunset to the strains of Moby, having again gotten the upper hand on the various bureaucrats who have either been watching him on monitors or talking about him in boardrooms the entire film. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Basically they are like “Bond” movies if James Bond was dour and humorless, actively worked against his country’s interests, and if the Bond girl in every film was Julia Stiles.
But by far the biggest cinematic sin perpetuated by the “Bourne” movies was popularizing a style of action in which a typical fight between Bourne and one of his opponents would be presented as if the camera was given to a hyperactive five-year-old and the subsequent footage then edited together by a speed addict. Director Paul Greengrass has said he used such jerky, hand-held camera movements, extreme close-ups, and rapid-fire editing to convey the confusion of a fight to audiences. Well if the point is to have the people watching your films ask, “Wait, what did he just do?” during every action sequence, then mission accomplished!
Unfortunately this “style” spread to other films such “Quantum of Solace” and the “Taken” franchise, where oftentimes you’d have to infer what Liam Neeson had done to a bad guy since it was not obvious on the screen. But with movies like “The Raid” and “John Wick” reminding audiences that it’s a lot more fun to be able to actually see the incredible stunt work and fight choreography put on by the second unit, there was hope that perhaps the newest “Bourne” would update its style accordingly.
Well those hopes are put to rest in the opening minutes, when Bourne faces off with an opponent in an underground fighting contest and knocks him out with one punch. Even if you did not see the movie, you probably couldn’t miss seeing a version of this scene that closed out the trailer and most commercials for the film last summer:
Not only was that moment considered cool enough to end a Super Bowl trailer with, but it apparently inspired someone to post a loop of it repeating for over an hour:
Now let’s see how this clearly shot and well-edited bit of action, which became the centerpiece of the movie’s ad campaign, is actually presented in the movie:
A sequence that had clear choreography and momentum in the commercials is now rendered nearly incoherent in the film, without any sort of build up and barely any payoff. It also epitomizes this franchise’s approach to action filmmaking, as even when there is a better alternative, Greengrass will still opt for the muddled and confusing version every time. If you consider yourself a fan of these movies then you’ll be happy to know that “Jason Bourne” does nothing to alter the formula at all, but if you want to claim the action in this franchise is good then try to imagine Paul Greengrass directing “Road House” and tell me that’s the version you’d rather see. Yeah, I thought so.
Additional thoughts on “Jason Bourne”:
- One of the only indications that the world has changed since 2007 is the inclusion of an almost completely superfluous subplot involving a Silicon Valley social media giant who is being coerced into letting the government use his product to spy on people. Apparently the screenwriters decided to call his fictional Facebook-like product Deep Dream, a name that in reality would never make it past the brainstorming phase as it comes off as creepy, implies that it will put the user to sleep, and sounds even more ridiculous in conversations: “Hey did you see my Deep Dream post about the election last night?” “Yeah I Deep Dreamed my contact info to you.”
- You might be wondering what exactly Deep Dream does that makes it so important to the government. I have no idea, but early on the founder gives a presentation about it at a conference and I’ll print in verbatim the vague corporate buzz phrases he unleashes:
“We all know why we are here; we are going to be unveiling a new platform. We think it is a bold new step to allow us to serve our community better. We are a community right now that is transcending national boundaries, and I think we are 1.5 billion users. We have an ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of apps at this point, and what this new platform will do will be to integrate users’ data and preferences and use that information to enrich and tailor make each unique user experience in a way that is frankly unprecedented.”
- While it appears the screenwriters just spent five minutes copying and pasting from various Ted Talks to come up with that speech, I have a feeling I could give this exact pitch to any venture capitalist in the world and walk out with $20 million in seed money.
- The CEO also gets a rousing standing ovation when he ends his pitch with these reassuring words: “Let me just say, I understand that nobody likes to feel like they are being watched. So let me just tell you, when you come to Deep Dream, when you use our service, no one will be watching you!” Maybe it’s just me, but I’d be wary of using any product where not being explicitly spied upon is a major part of its sales pitch.
- In the very next scene this CEO meets with Tommy Lee Jones’ character in a crowded D.C. restaurant to discuss their illegal spying operation, which would be the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg meeting for a private lunch in a very public setting with Donald Rumsfeld and no one finding that at all unusual.
- Edward Snowden apparently exists in the universe of this movie but Jeremy Renner’s character from “Bourne Legacy” goes unmentioned. I assume the “Rambo” films also exist and Bourne is a fan, since his initial off-the-grid existence as an underground fighter is awfully similar to the beginning of “Rambo III.”
- Bourne is a master of evading detection, except when he is downloading secret government files on an unsecured laptop right next to a giant open window.
- For the third time over four films, Bourne uncovers the existence of a covert black ops program, this time called Iron Hand. If the government wants to keep its next black ops program more of a secret, it should: a) Not keep all the information about it on a computer file helpfully titled “Black Ops” and b) Give it a less ominous name, perhaps something like “Passion Fruit Surprise.”
- Apparently the CIA’s top assassin is a haggard middle-aged Frenchmen played of course by Vincent Cassel, since I guess Jean Reno was unavailable. Cassel actually has a good reason for wanting Bourne dead, since Bourne’s efforts to expose the last government black ops program got him captured and tortured in Syria for two years. Why is Bourne considered a hero again?
- During a high-tech conference near the end of the film, it briefly looked like the filmmakers had hired T.J. Miller from “Silicon Valley” to play the emcee of the event, which would have been an amusing meta joke had they not remembered that these films cannot have anything approaching humor at any time
Speaking of humor, I think my biggest beef with the Bourne franchise is the fact that “Bourne Ultimatum” opened the same weekend as “Hot Rod” and absolutely crushed Andy Samberg’s comedic masterwork, ensuring it would be almost 10 years before he was allowed to make his next hilarious flop, “Popstar.” However, I think it’s obvious which film will have the more lasting legacy in the long run:
Update – CJ Adds His Two Cents (and tries to shame Matt Damon into paying more in taxes)
CJ: My theory on the herky-jerky action scenes is that they felt they could not make Matt Damon look like a badass – and they are completely right in this assessment. Who would have known after all these years that “Team America’s” “Matt Daaaaaamon” perfectly encapsulated everything that IS Matt Damon. This is the same guy who has said he wants to pay more in taxes, but clearly hasn’t looked into it or else he would have discovered the “gifts to the government” option available to everyone. You expect that guy to kick down a door and flip over ninjas while firing off his gun in one take? (sidenote: For those who also say they are happy to pay more, here’s the link: http://fms.treas.gov/faq/moretopics_gifts.html; just be sure to write us back and let us know what reason you came up with for not contributing.)
That is one of the main issues I’ve had with the Bourne franchise. The other big one for me is that they took the “not remembering anything” concept a little too far, as I cannot remember anything that has happened in any of these movies. I sort of know that he once woke up on a boat, a girl dies in a car crash, and Joan Allen is tired. This is backed up by the opening sequence in “Jason Bourne” featuring stuff that’s happened in the previous movies, but I don’t think any of it was actual plot points. More of a “here’s some stuff from previous movies.” My reaction? Sure, if you say so.
As for this installment specifically, I think the overriding theme is “How stupid is our audience?”, because they went out on a limb thinking we’d question nothing and just go along. Wait a minute, are we the Jason Bourne they hoped for? Here are some of the many things that any logical person to go “wait, what?”:
- Kevin, you mentioned the horrible one-punch knockout, but did you also notice it takes place seemingly in the middle of nowhere, while simultaneously being on the Greece-Albanian border? In either case, how does everyone know about this? There was even a kid there! If Bourne is trying to be clandestine, not only did he pick a terrible place, but when he gets off the bus some old guy immediately calls out to him as “Vasily”? If you’re trying to stay off the grid, you need more than just a name change. I also don’t know any blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans named Vasily. Good thing he also took his shirt off.
- Speaking of clandestine, I just want to add on to your point about the Iron Hand file-naming structure. We see about seven or so computer files with the names of previous evil covert ops, and when Julia Stiles starts to download them she does so off the “CIA Main Server.” Forget renaming your evil folders, shouldn’t renaming your main server be your first priority? That’s like having a safe house and saying, “Ok, get to our safe house at 123 Not a Safe House Blvd.”
- Stiles also gets the file on Bourne’s dad immediately, as if it was the first file on the server. I’m not saying that’s a ridiculous notion, I’m just saying it’s stupid. This also reminded me of a really shitty attempt to copy what happened to Chloe O’Brian in “24: Live Another Day.” Both have something to do with secret hacking groups, both download files, and both get them to their guy. Except Jason Bourne will do nothing, while Jack Bauer will save the world at great personal expense.
- Except here’s the difference. When busted, Chloe would do something smart like wipe the hard drive, deploy some virus, or something equally brilliant to cover her tracks. You know what Julia Stiles did? She lit the keyboard on fire and immediately ran off. What isn’t shown is one of the other hackers just grabbing the fire extinguisher, putting out the fire, and asking where the spare keyboards are. And oh hey, she left her work on the monitor, guess we know what she’s up to. Also, as a computer expert, shouldn’t she be aware of backup servers?
Now if you’re sitting here getting a little weirded out about how much basic logic this movie is asking you to overlook, I should point out I’m only 10 minutes in.
I’d also like to take a quick break though to point out that the CEO of Deep Dream looks like an Indian Tobey Maguire. If the thinking was, “We need someone who looks like just as much of an annoying pussy as Mark Zuckerberg,” then they nailed it. If their goal was to have a CEO who might be up to no good, well, “Oh shit, it’s Tobey Maguire!” is something no one’s ever said.
By far my favorite part of “Jason Bourne” is when they are trying to catch Stiles and Bourne in the town square somewhere in Greece. I swear to you their plan was to isolate all social media feeds in the region and do a facial recognition of all the people who have accounts. So just to be clear, this is the CIA’s plan to catch a former, computer-literate employee of a spy agency:
- Hope she opened up a twitter account in her real name and then made her icon a clear picture of her face.
- Hope she’s decided to live tweet.
Then again, this is the agency that has a “CIA Main Server,” so this probably IS what they are thinking. And Stiles tried to cover her tracks by torching a keyboard, so she might actually be tweeting.
Kevin, I’ll add to your point about the Deep Dream CEO getting the standing ovation after declaring they won’t spy on anyone. When has a group of people ever accepted such weird proclamations like that? That’d be like me meeting a girl for a first date and saying “Hey, my name is CJ, and I’ll tell you one thing about me, I do NOT have a STD,” and her responding, “Let’s get out of here.”
Now if you’re at home watching this, aren’t you at least a little bit insulted that Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon thought they could feed you this and you’d accept it? Don’t worry, because they also felt you were too dumb to understand the general plot as well. Midway through the movie, we get a glimpse of a psychiatric evaluation of Bourne, and from what we can tell the doctor is a big fan of pull-out quotes to describe his patients, and when it comes to Bourne I’ll summarize the ones we see:
“Bourne has issues.”
“These issues are dangerous.”
“He will come after you due to these issues.”
“Then again, maybe he won’t.”
“Except he will.”
Quick, which Bourne movie is he describing?
Other random notes of stupidity:
- Bourne opens a locker to find a USB flash drive that says “encrypted.” There was also a gun, which probably should have been labeled “shooty shoot.”
- While looking at CIA files, Bourne clearly knows how poorly hidden everything is, as he just searched for “Jason Bourne Recruitment History” and woah, he found them! Next up is probably “VP secret takeover plans of POTUS” and “Bigfoot = Real?”
- Bourne questions a surveillance guy for two minutes on a rooftop and only after the guy clearly starts talking to someone else does Bourne notice the giant bug in his ear.
- Tommy Lee Jones is at a tech convention and is told he is safe because one agent is posted backstage and another is in the auditorium. This is good, because the problem they’ve had with Bourne was always sending a single guy after him, guess they forgot the quote in his file that said: “Is hilariously easily taken down when confronted with two attackers.”
- The tech convention that Tommy Lee Jones is appearing at is filled with a bunch of millennials. Who here knows of millennials that would applaud the director of the CIA?
- I fell asleep during the last 10 minutes of the movie and woke up just as Tommy Lee Jones’ protégé learns that Bourne has a voice recording of her saying she’d gain his trust, and then as Kevin points out, Bourne walks away to Moby and the credits roll. I have not had a single ounce of interest or curiosity to go back and watch the 10 minutes I missed. That is the Bourne franchise.