Jason Bourne’s Tough Guy Politics

Matt Damon in Jason Bourne
A franchise and a French film series offer moral contrasts.

A resolute Matt Damon aiming a Heckler and Koch USP (universal self-loading pistol) in the advertising poster for Jason Bourne tells all you need to know about liberal hypocrisy. The movie itself tells less, given the filmmakers’ attempt to obfuscate by swamping moral principle with mindless sensationalism. That has always been the case with the Bourne franchise (five films so far based on the Robert Ludlum book series). Damon portrays the titular former CIA assassin who goes rogue but remains troubled by an identity crisis; as the result of a government experiment he’s unable to remember his past.

Maybe one reason the Bourne franchise has been a popular moneymaker is that the hero is a prototype for the modern movie-going audience; Hollywood relies upon viewers also being “psychogenic amnesiacs.” If they don’t remember, or care to distinguish, one Bourne plot from another, they become perfect dupes for rehashed product. This time Jason Bourne reemerges into the fractious world of espionage now complicated by technological baddies. CIA Chief Tommy Lee Jones sics counterinsurgency expert Alicia Vikander to smoke out Bourne, who once again gets entangled with his old crony Julia Stiles.

You should be aware that the anti-government paranoia in the Bourne series functions like planned obsolescence — each new Bourne sells a new variation on skepticism, nihilism, and gloom, supposedly enlivened by director Paul Greengrass’s hyperactive, overly edited, always indecipherable chases, explosions, and fight scenes. Greengrass’s pummeling impresses action fans who are unfamiliar with the genre mastery of Walter Hill, Paul W. S. Anderson, Michael Bay, Olivier Megaton, and Luc Besson. Greengrass’s latest retooled junker is of no aesthetic interest except to note (once again) his emphasis on emotionless violence.

What’s left amidst this chaos, ironically, is Damon’s peculiar resolve. Famous for speaking out on political causes and flaunting his partisanship at inappropriate times, the liberal Damon contradicts himself in the Bourne series. As a sadistic CIA operative, he invokes Southie street-ethnicity mixed with the presumed intellect of his real Cambridge, Mass., background. Despite those credentials, Damon’s Bourne is no pacifist (racking up at least ten kills this time). On the down-low in Greece, he is shirtless, gym-taut, and scowling when he joins a bare-knuckle fight competition. This may be a liberal’s secret fantasy of imagined American prowess. It goes with Greengrass’s unremittingly violent set-pieces (from Athens to London to Las Vegas, some scenes imitating the current protest fad), which reduce the planet we all share to a killing field. It also coarsens cinema into a demolition derby.

While Damon-the-film-star preaches liberal platitudes, Damon-the-$50-million-earning-professional appeals to the public’s lowest instincts. (Damon once made laudable films like Geronimo: An American Legend and The Good Shepherd, but he’s since gone to the dark side.) Fawning journalists never question the inconsistency between Damon’s filmmaking and his recent gun-control lobbying, so whatever sense can be made of the Bourne franchise’s brutality and unrestrained weaponry (a Sig-Sauer P229R is another firearm in the film’s arsenal) must be made for oneself.

Damon’s Jason Bourne displays the ruthlessness that liberals are loath to admit. He is an icon of callous masculinity that vitiates the heroic core of classic Hollywood hero-characters, particularly as once idealized in westerns. Bourne may be a figure of a complicated age, but so was John Wayne’s gallery of heroes, along with Gary Cooper’s and Humphrey Bogart’s, Alan Ladd’s Shane, and even the various 007s. Those characters had a code of honor and stood for national or international principles; this was also true, I reluctantly admit, for a trite figure like Bruce Willis’s John McClane. It’s the lack of principles — and the acceptance of contemporary immorality — that makes Jason Bourne’s unsmiling visage so repellent. He’s the heartless monster beneath Damon’s public liberal mask.

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“You’re never gonna find inner peace, not ’til you admit to yourself who you really are,” Jones’s CIA honcho tells Bourne. That’s when you know that Jason Bourne is a crock and that today’s concept of the movie tough guy has changed. Not only does Bourne not know who he really is, but modern Hollywood has forgotten how to convey heroism. Damon, like Hollywood, betrays the audience’s trust by appealing to its base instincts on the one hand and then patronizing their politics on the other.

There is no such confusion in “Les Durs,” a slang term adopted for the series of French films devoted to “tough guys” now showing at Film Forum in New York. Through several generations, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, and Jean-Paul Belmondo were archetypes of French crime-movie he-men. Damon is not up to their example; he represents the smugness of preppies who equate snarky attitude with a fist, liberals who rationalize their personal use of guns. These French crime thrillers differ also by being moral tales; they’re from a time when crime was not confused with convenience. In the Bourne movies, political crimes are justified as necessity — with Damon playing a paragon who finally regrets that he kills for a corrupt system.

#related#In “Les Durs,” French film stars offer action minus political indictment. There’s Gabin’s romance in Pépé le Moko, his fatalism in Le Jour se Lève, his brotherhood in La Grande Illusion; Ventura’s personal honor in Classe Tous Risques and political paranoia in Illustrious Corpses; and Belmondo’s political awakening in That Man from Rio and his moral awakening in Mississippi Mermaid and Breathless. Each actor and each film preserves the link between personal and social obligation. Ventura, described in Classe Tous Risques as a “big guy, wide shoulders, dark hair, square face,” is little known to Americans, but the former wrestler’s granitic features and deep-staring eyes recall Bogart and Bronson’s don’t-mess-with-me intensity; he’s a monument of probity such as cute little Matt Damon cannot match. Gabin, Ventura, and Belmondo shame this era, in which politicians and their surrogates confuse ego with backbone. After Jason Bourne, we need “Les Durs” to remind us that tough guys can also be unambiguous good guys.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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