Jason Bourne deserves his due just as much as Anton Chigurh.
I was going to write about Jumper this week. Honest. Action—yes. Boy story—yes. Samuel L. Jackson—yes. Hayden “Skywalker” Christensen—yes. Utterly disposable female characters—alas, yes. Then, as my eyes were glazing over while I waited for Jamie Bell to appear, my mind was wondering just how many screenwriters it takes to eliminate character development, and my taste buds were recalling gelato in Rome, I remembered why I was really here. Jumper auteur Doug Liman directed The Bourne Identity. He directed an action movie that contained real, not completely CGI-dependent action. An action movie about a genuinely complex and conflicted young man, rather than a wispy facsimile thereof. An action movie that knew a low-key heavy in the person of Chris Cooper could be just as menacing as Jackson in full weird hair and bellow mode. An action movie whose star could actually communicate some emotion in his face, even as he remained stoic. And an action movie whose distaff counterpart to our hero was thoughtful, adventurous, and a gloriously European (i.e. unusual) version of beautiful. Oh, Doug. I hope Fox paid you untold millions to squander the gifts of The Bourne Identity (and Mr. And Mrs. Smith to a lesser extent) to shit out Jumper.
Then the kind of movie amnesia induced by the disposable likes of Jumper led to more ruminations about Bourne and the impending Oscars. This year is highly unusual in that none of the Best Picture nominees is completely execrable (oh, I’m well aware of the fact that there are those close by who vehemently disagree). Even if Atonement won—which I hope it most certainly does not—it wouldn’t be a disgrace on the level of Crash. That two of my favorite movies of 2007, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, are not only in the running, but frontrunners is even more unusual, if only because neither one would ever be considered polite, “feel good” entertainment. If the Coen Brothers clean up on Oscar night, I will be perhaps even more ecstatic than I was over The Departed. This time, the filmmakers will be honored for the right movie in their, dare I say it, oeuvre. That is rare indeed.
So what on earth is my problem? In a nutshell, Lord of the Rings. Or rather, if the Academy could slobber all over a (crushingly dull) trilogy that is nothing if not designed to be blockbuster entertainment, then why not show the love to the final installment of another wildly popular and consistently interesting and well-made trilogy? If you’re going strictly by what the Critics say and the percentages calculated on the delightful RottenTomatoes.com, The Bourne Ultimatum (93% Fresh!) has just as much right to be in the Final Five as Juno (93%) and No Country For Old Men (the winner with 94%). It has more of a right than There Will Be Blood (91%), Michael Clayton (90%), and the comparatively pathetic Atonement (82%). And don’t get me started on the content of LOTR. Why wizards, hobbits, elves, and giant flaming vaginas, sorry, eyeballs are more “Oscar-worthy” than a well-acted, politically and globally attuned thriller helmed by an Oscar Nominated Director (Paul Greengrass), and starring three Oscar Nominated Actors (hello, Matt Damon? Joan Allen? David Strathairn? These are not hacks, people), not to mentioned written by Michael Clayton creator Tony Gilroy, is truly beyond me.
I’m not saying The Bourne Ultimatum should have been in the running because it should beat No Country For Old Men. Perish the thought. As far as No Country’s Chigurh-like charge through awards season, deserve does have something to do with it. I’m just wondering why the boy-world fantasy of Lord of the Rings merits the kind of attention that the grownup action fantasy of the Bourne trilogy does not. As far as technique, The Bourne Ultimatum is superbly shot, edited (just won that guild award), designed, scored, mixed, and all those other things. Chopping up and moving through cinematic space as much as Greengrass does and keeping it all coherent is just plain impressive. Oh sure, he’s not marshalling armies of imaginary beasts and battalions of megapixel soldiers. But what, it’s somehow supposed to be “easier” or “less impressive” to run Bourne across Tangier rooftops and through apartment windows (with a real live Damon and stunt double) than it is to sit in front of a computer and make neat pictures? I don’t think so. They are both difficult to do well. And nobody does serious action movies better than the Bourne crew.
I’ve already said my piece about the story content of The Bourne Ultimatum. But it’s worth remembering, before anybody starts talking about the Grand Themes enmeshed in the story of the frakkin’ Ring, that the Bourne trilogy has more on its mind than killing people, chasing cars, and blowing shit up. It too is a quest narrative. It too is a coming of age story. It too is about coming to terms with the complicated notions of good and evil that haunt the world in which we live. It too is about what a man must do. And it too is about what a man must do once he knows the full extent to which he could do evil (Yep. Atone.). And it embeds all of that seriousness in a three-part story that is never, ever boring or puffed up with its own importance. It actually has wit, rather than mere comic relief. And it never forgets the vital role that killing people, chasing cars, and blowing shit up play in the whole mix. Jason Bourne’s physical power and mastery over everything is as “fantastic” and “escapist” in its own way as Middle-earth.
I’ve also had my say about the humanity underpinning all of the trilogy’s twists, turns, ideas, and ass-kicking. Damon’s Bourne says a lot while actually speaking very little (come on, is that not the iconic image of American manhood?). The women around him say even more. Also, you don’t wonder (as perhaps you may when looking at the casts of Con Air and National Treasure: Book of Secrets) just how much money the prestige actors are being paid to show up. You marvel at the luck of Allen, Strathairn et al. for signing on to popcorn movies that also give them something to do. So again, I have to ask: why is Bourne the spy left out in the Best Picture cold? Could it really be because the movies are less than three hours long (i.e. not epics like the LOTR films), and as entertaining as they are smart and well made? Perhaps.
And then I think yet again, as I always do at this time of year, that the Academy never should have gotten rid of that second “Best Picture” category after 1928. Then No Country For Old Men could duke it out with There Will Be Blood for “Best Artistic Quality of Production,” while The Bourne Ultimatum could share the Oscar milkshake with “Best Production.” The apples can reside in the same bowl with the oranges, and everyone can be satisfied that they are both tasty, lovely treats. Because a movie like Jumper is nothing if not a reminder of how difficult it is to make a quality action film that has even a fraction of a brain.
Guy Movies is a biweekly analysis of machismo cinema from the perspective of a woman.