Action movie franchises, like the Bourne series, are meant to reflect the times they live in. As mammoth works of pop culture, they are designed to reinforce—and, ideally, challenge—popular tastes, aesthetics, and contemporary politics.
For example, with today’s craze of third-wave feminism, is it any coincidence that James Bond is being criticized for his “misogyny”? While it is true that Bond, like Jason Bourne, is a “tough guy” who does not suffer fools–male or female–that is not an extension of a hatred squarely aimed at women.
Rather, since 9/11, Bond has been portrayed as a damaged antihero, embodying a rugged confidence and defiance that is condemned and, frankly, misunderstood nowadays. Wielding a firm set of skills and principles, Bond knows how to get exactly what he wants–qualities which women love (whether they admit it or not) and other men respect.
Jason Bourne is an interesting case of masculine ideals. He shares 007’s physical endurance and mental sharpness that, with age (Damon is 45; was 29 in The Bourne Identity), has grown cynical and world-weary. Bags darkening under his eyes and wrinkles lining his face, Bourne moves through his environment with the same precision a horseback John Wayne acquired when he navigated Monument Valley in the Classic Westerns of the 1950s.
What separates Bourne from other action heroes, though, is his constant search for identity. While many action films put their leading man through an identity crisis (virtually every Christopher Nolan movie), Jason Bourne’s existential struggle has been the impetus of the entire commercially successful franchise, which is based on Robert Ludlum’s books.
In Jason Bourne, the fifth movie of the series (and fourth to star Matt Damon), Bourne’s hunt for self is, on the surface, an apt analogy for the identity crisis of today’s men pursuing masculine ideals against the politically correct wagging finger of “toxic masculinity.”
Following this analogy, the Central Intelligence Agency is that authoritarian force that tries to dominate, control, and neutralize Bourne’s said quest. Within the agency, counterinsurgency expert Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) asserts herself in a male-dominated division by showing initiative to her male bosses in handling the mission to take out Bourne.
Heather is in search of an identity as well, only it is career-based: she wants to leapfrog from an already-plum position to become the eyes and ears of the CIA Director (a sour, mean-faced Tommy Lee Jones).
Bourne and Heather are complementary characters separated by their allegiances. A man on the run, Bourne serves his own cause, whereas Heather serves the Establishment (but, really, for her own benefit). Further, Bourne has no pretensions about his principles, whereas Heather feigns nobility and honor.
In one scene, she defends to a tech giant (Nightcrawler’s Riz Ahmed) that her principles are “still there” after joining the unconstitutional intelligence agency. But in reality, she is selfish and out to career climb, which is confirmed in the film’s final confrontation (see below).
Unfortunately though, Jason Bourne plays more for plot than story, meaning that these themes are undermined instead of underlined by the action. Narrative exposition and tricky twists are privileged over character building and catharsis. But that is Paul Greengrass for you; he is a director (Captain Phillips most recently) who specializes in shaky-cam action that strictly attempts to create the illusion of real time. Greengrass favours fluidity of plot, which helps the pace of his films but not their ideas.
His scrappy style resembles Michael Mann’s–Jason Bourne’s cyber warfare premise mirrors last year’s excellent Blackhat– only Mann’s movies are also about character. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “Mann is an action filmmaker even when his characters are standing still”. In addition, Mann interestingly casted Hollywood beau Chris Hemsworth against type as a brainy computer hacker, which added shades of contrast to the hero’s personality.
The boyish Damon is better when his “heroic” roles are tongue-in-cheek (The Martian, True Grit) or laced with cowardice (The Departed, Interstellar). While Damon has physical chutzpah, his heroism needs some irony or masculine flaw.
The Bourne movies give Damon a serious-looking leading character, but that male archetype is starting to exhaust itself and requires deconstruction, which this new film fails to offer.
This is likely why the curly-haired, sneaky-like-a-rat Asset (Vincent Cassel) is a fresher character. Bourne’s arch-enemy, the Asset is a fresh addition to the series and is dependably slick and deadly. He packs punch. Bourne, meanwhile, needs a flaw, some sort of imperfection to test his will and give weight to his identity hunt (Damon’s arguably hypocritical gun control stance would serve as a useful implementation, couldn’t it?).
Lacking depth, Jason Bourne has little to say about its titular hero. While the film implies a socio-political allegory, it is not worked out in the plot. There is an opportunity in the film to highlight Bourne’s connection to his father, but this is obfuscated by flashy flashbacks that merely function as jolts of “information”. Greengrass repeats these flashbacks, not to identify with Bourne’s fractured state of mind but to continuously prompt the poor memory of the average action movie goer.
Further, the plot is predictable. It follows the formula of the previous entries, so by the film’s close it is easy to predict Bourne’s next duck, step, leap, punch, and all of his other basic forms of tactical combat as he maneuvers through Athens, London, and Las Vegas. Bourne lacks his reliable elusiveness; it is interesting when that is because the CIA can track him easier due to advancements in modern technology, but his predictability is primarily borne out of familiar plot mechanics.
In Jason Bourne, the question “How Masculine Is Jason Bourne” is really, unfortunately moot. An informed viewer can project their knowledge of gender identity and past masculine heroes onto the film and surmise their own conclusions; from this writer’s perspective, however, masculine identity is not examined or even reflected in Greengrass’s direction or script (cowritten by Christopher Rouse).
Thus, Bourne has devolved into a hollow hero (and yet “we need to evolve,” Damon ironically stated in a July interview promoting gun control); he’s become an object of plot, meant to bait his audience along to the franchise’s (inevitable) next film. Ultimately, Damon plays a hero that needs to discover “who he really is” simply so we will continue to buy tickets. A shill for Hollywood–not so masculine, you could say.
Read More: 8 Films With Masculine Virtue