2016 Film Essays

His Blazing Automatics: Can Jason Bourne Change the Action Genre Again?


His Blazing Automatics is a Vague Visages column by staff writer Dylan Moses Griffin.

Last week, the trailer for the economically titled Jason Bourne was released. And this piece is not a discussion about whether or not the film will kick ass, but how much. You got Matt Damon back as the titular badass and Paul Greengrass back in the director’s seat; you got them ignoring the extremely forgettable spinoff The Bourne Legacy and you got franchise keystone Julia Stiles back along with a knockout supporting cast in Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Riz Ahmed and Vincent Cassel. There’s lots of great action in the footage, and lots of shady government intrigue. Then at the end of the trailer, Jason Bourne one-hit KOs some jacked dude in a desert fight club like it’s nothing, and I’m there. The question I’m here to ask is this: Can Jason Bourne once again change the course of the action film?

One of the many reasons why I love dissecting the action genre is the identifiable shift in the filmmaking, storytelling, style and attitude by decade. I won’t give a history lesson here, but to set us up for what the Bourne films originally accomplished, we need to talk about the 90s action film. The 90s were like this really weird middle period between the excess of the 80s action film and the grittiness of the 2000s action film. But in the 90s, could you have an actor like Nic Cage as your most bankable action star for a short time (a.k.a. the greatest time in film history). To better explain how wild the 90s were, let’s talk about Face/Off. You couldn’t make a film like Face/Off in any other time period, because within the first twenty minutes, they commit to switching the faces of Cage and John Travolta onto each other’s bodies. This is Plan A. They haven’t exhausted any other options now, they just go straight for this bonkers idea. You couldn’t make that today. You couldn’t have made that in the 80s. Only in the 90s could a movie as gloriously strange as Face/Off have existed.

So, the 2000s rolled around, and nature took its course as the action film headed in a different direction. But which? Jason Bourne showed the way with Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, a much more gritty and grounded take on the action hero that had resounding impressions on the rest of the filmmaking community. Bourne’s action hero is one that doesn’t have superhero strength and impossible luck, but tremendous skill, resolve and training. Bourne’s action hero is far from invincible, instead paving forth an action hero introduced by Die Hard’s John McClane, but one that’s still a mortal human being. The influence of Bourne can be seen in the grounded mortality of Daniel Craig’s Bond films, the gritty brutality of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, even the human-type superspy character of the first Taken film. Paul Greengrass, one of the only working filmmakers capable of making handheld action filmmaking work, came on to direct the sequels The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, two films that surprisingly outdid their predecessors.

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So, moving into the 2010s, what we see in the evolution of the action film (and the action hero) is a postmodern take, basically meaning that both are a culmination of or a comment on what has come before. The loudest example of this has been The Expendables films, which play with (and cash in on) the very clout of the cast’s resumes. So, nine years after the last Matt Damon Bourne film, can this character have a similar effect on the industry and the action film? Can it adapt to the current model of the postmodern action film and hero?

With all this in mind, I rewatched the Jason Bourne trailer, and it struck me that the latest installment is actually a postmodern take on the Bourne franchise. At one point in the trailer, Tommy Lee Jones asks about Bourne, “Why would he come back now?” The same could be asked about the franchise itself. Why now, after all this time? Does the world still need another Jason Bourne? As Bourne tries to answer questions for himself, it’s likely that may film validate some larger questions. Rather than trying to shift the landscape of the action film again, Jason Bourne looks to be its own unique take on the action films currently dominating the genre. And with that one-hit KO, it looks like Bourne’s going to make it count.

Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.