The five biggest movies that opened in the USA in the last weekend of July, 2016 had the following Rotten Tomato scores: 76, 62, 58, 57, 50. For those of you who don’t know, RT considers a movie to be “Fresh” if it has 60 or higher, and “Rotten” is it falls under 60. So, my fleeting understanding of analytics suggests that these five movies are all basically “Mediocre.”
There are plenty of reasons why current American movies are pretty much all “Mediocre.” Here’s one brief lesson from one of the new movies which may briefly help explain one of those reasons.
In the new Jason Bourne movie, brilliantly titled Jason Bourne, writer-director Paul Greengrass has returned to the Robert Ludlum-created character who had a pretty good run in the first several years of the new millennium. Now, I like Greengrass a lot. I think United 93 was among the greatest American movies of the 21st century’s first decade. And it is not surprising to me that the new Bourne is reasonably entertaining. The pacing is strong. The acting, particularly Vincent Cassel’s bad guy, known simply as the “Asset,” is quality. The music is guaranteed to get your pulse racing, in much the same way that Jolt Cola used to before we all got too scared to drink it.
But the thematic laziness of the story is extraordinary, and to me, is a textbook example of what is wrong with American film circa, well, right now.
The following contains spoilers, but really, none of it is very hard to see coming. Still, don’t read if you want to be “surprised.”
Jason Bourne dips its toe into a very popular modern theme. Where should the line be between security and freedom. There are a couple of references to “Snowden” in the movie. There is a Mark Zuckerberg kind of character. There are hints of the FBI/Apple dispute over hacking into the cell phones of private citizens.
At its dramatic core, the government, in the person of Tommy Lee Jones’ Robert Dewey, has entered into some vague alliance with social media mogul Aaron Kalloor, played by Riz Ahmed. In the name of security, Dewey wants ever-increasing access to personal data on Kalloor’s customers and Kalloor is balking at the request/demand. Dewey will break lots of laws and commit murder in order to protect his covert agenda.
Jason Bourne, for entirely personal reasons, will get sucked into this kerfuffle.
Greengrass appears to be saying that in a showdown between freedom and security, freedom should win. Dewey gets to voice the occasional “here’s why we need to invade your privacy” argument, but it is not very passionate. Mostly, the government types are cynical. This is a fairly common liberal point of view, and being a fairly common liberal myself, I was rooting for Bourne and his good guys to win.
Even if Dewey and his cronies have their hearts in the right place, it is simply too dangerous to trust any entity with the kind of omniscient power Dewey covets. It is too easy to blindly trust the guys wearing the white hats. I think that’s an important message, one that a movie like Jason Bourne is right to put forth.
I just wish Greengrass hadn’t completely sold out that very message at the movie’s rather extended climax.
Here’s the set-up: Bourne has succeeded in foiling the bad guys’ nefarious plans. Most of them are rendered useless. (Actually they are rendered dead but I didn’t want to give that away.) But one remains. Cassel’s Asset. Bourne has learned of a deep personal connection which makes the J-man eager to take the A-train down. (OK, I’ll stop.) There is a chase.
Not just any chase, mind you. This is 2016 and old-school French Connection chases are passé. The Asset is driving a stolen SWAT truck that can plow through anything in its way. Jason is driving a regular car. I didn’t notice the type but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was a hybrid. They chase each other through the busy streets of Las Vegas.
Jason drives into oncoming traffic. He jumps levels in a parking garage. He drives off an elevated highway to crash into the SWAT truck and they both go barreling into the lobby of the Riviera (when there still was a Riviera in Vegas.)
Now here’s the key. Whereas the bad guy in the truck barrels into countless innocent bystanders, Jason never so much as causes a pedestrian to stub a toe while leaping out of the way. He always swerves just out of the way of oncoming traffic. It makes for exciting, visceral drama. But consider what it also does.
It seems to make manifest the idea that the use of dangerous, potentially reckless force (Jason driving like a maniac) is just fine so long as the guy wielding that force is a good guy. If he’s a bad guy like the Asset, there will be catastrophic damage. But if he’s a good guy, not even a stubbed toe.
In other words, the dramatic conclusion of the movie exactly contradicts the theme that the movie had appeared to be exploring – that too much power is dangerous even if is in the hands of the “good guys.”
And this is why Jason Bourne, for all its talent and emotionally manipulative quality, is no better than mediocre. At its core, it is hollow. Worse than hollow, because it reinforces the idea that we should all just shut up and thank God for the Jason Bournes of the world. They are an opiate. They are our way of avoiding responsibility.
Consider for a moment what would have happened it Jason had quite realistically smashed his hybrid into a little old lady crossing the strip as he pursued the bad guy. What would that have meant? Would he have called off the pursuit? Would he have said “what bad luck that was, but still I must prevent this killer from escaping?” Would he have had yet another of his ever-increasing breakdowns?
Of course, he, and we, never have to confront that question, because in a modern Hollywood movie, there is never a cost for righteous action. There is never collateral damage. There is never an unjust price to be paid, so long as the good guys are running free. Sadly, that isn’t the way of the world. There is always collateral damage. In order for our democracy to have a serious conversation about issues like the line between privacy and security, we have to recognise that. I guess it’s asking a lot for movies to be a part of that serious conversation. I guess they have resigned themselves to simply perpetuating the easy stereotype.
Ten years ago, when Matt Damon was promoting the (presumed) final Bourne movie, The Bourne Ultimatum, he joked that if there was ever to be a fourth movie in the series, it should be called The Bourne Redundancy. Seeing the same recycled narratives played out over and over doesn’t really bother me anymore. Or, if it does, I’ve at least come to peace with the repetition. But seeing these fraudulent themes, which are not merely redundant but are actually culturally dangerous, repeated even by good filmmakers, is downright depressing.
Makes you kind of wish that mediocrity were modern film’s greatest sin.