Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why the Bourne movies are a failure… (ed. They Are Not)

Scott submitted the following on why the Bourne Movies fail. I completely disagree, and so we did a kind of point/counterpoint thing.

Why the Bourne movies are a failure by Scott

I recently sat down and watched the Jason Bourne series with my dad and I can see why people like them: they’re stylish and fast-paced with plenty of action (I can particularly see why my father, who constantly complains that most movies are ‘too long’ --- despite the fact that he will gladly sit through any 3-4 hour WWII epic, likes them as they all clock in at under 2 hours). However, I found myself not really enjoying them all that much and I think I know why.

After seeing Kevin Smith’s ‘Zac and Miri Make a Porno’ I came to a crucial conclusion about romantic comedies: in order for a romantic comedy to be a success we have to CARE about whether or not our two leads end up together; this did not happen in ‘Zac and Miri’ and that is why that movie is a failure. So, what does this have to do with the Bourne movies? Well, I also found myself not caring about what happened in these movies either, which brings me to my main point: in order for a suspense/action/thriller (or any other film where the main characters are constantly in peril) to work, I have to care about those characters so that I can, at least, summon some level of concern for their well-being. In the Bourne movies, I could not do that and that is why they are a failure.

It’s become very hip recently to say that ‘the Bourne movies’ are the new James Bond, but they aren’t. Bond was charming, his supporting cast was likeable--- even each movie’s double-entendre nomenclatured femme fatale was likeable; The Bourne characters are not. They are all one dimensional: Evil guy pulling the strings, person trying to help from the inside, girl who is in over her head, etc. But, perhaps worst of all, is Bourne himself. We know nothing about him other than the fact that he is some sort of super-assassin. We don’t know if he has any hobbies, childhood experiences--- anything that might make him more of a person--- he just simply IS. On top of that, due to the character’s amnesiac nature, HE doesn’t know anything about HIM either. Basically, without any knowledge of who he is, Jason Bourne is nothing more than a walking collection very impressive, very deadly skills which, ultimately, makes him no different really than any of the nameless assassins he escapes in each movie. And, worst of all, he is given so little work as a character, I don’t even care if he ever finds out.

Good Villains should also be 'likeable', even so much that, in many cases, we like them more than we like the hero --- at their best they can also be charming, charismatic, sympahthetic--- and, at their very best, absolutely terrifying (Hannibal Lechter and Heath Ledger's Joker)--- or, at the very least, simply be a larger than life embodiment of evil (Darth Vader in the first two Star Wars movies). In the Bourne movies, the bad guys were very... professional. Perhaps a more 'realistic' way to portray professional assassins and spies, but, utlimately, this just made them boring.

Why they are so NOT by Geoff

Maybe -- MAYBE -- in a perfect world the Bourne movies would not be respected. But we live in our world, with the Transporter, Taken, G.I. Joe, Wanted, Bad Boys, Wolverine, Shoot em Up, and Live Free or Die Hard. In that world, you are not allowed to use "professional" in a bad way -- the villains are professional because the movie making is professional, and that is its strength. Kill Bill is ambitious movie, a work of genius way beyond professional, and no one is looking to the Bourne films for such tense dialogue, or acrobatic violence, or interaction with the history of the action movie. Kill Bill is a rare thing. But a movie that just tells a solid story, that runs like a machine, whose set pieces work and work together, that avoids the ridiculousness of taking out a plane, in mid air, with a truck driven off of a highway; a movie that is not driven by absurd coincidence, or features a guy with metal claws and a 0 body count, or involves firing bullets around corners, or out of magic guns; a movie whose leads are not obnoxious jerks acting like children, or how children imagine adults to be; a movie that gives weight to violence when it occurs, is rare too -- though it obviously should not be. The Bourne movies are solid. That should not be a compliment, or not a dramatic one, but it is. The Bourne movies may lack a charismatic characters as dramatic as Heath Ledger's Joker, but it also lacks anyone like; there is no Captain Jack Sparrow, but there is also no one like the romantic couple in the Pirates movies, whose names I cannot even begin to remember. And the Bourne movies' Chris Cooper and Albert Finny, David Straithairn and Julia Styles and Joan Allen are all great actors -- solid actors, who given a part just do a good job with it. You don't see the movie just because they are in it, but there is something good about a movie where everyone is solid, instead of a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean or (to a lesser extent) Dark Knight where basically one guy carries the whole thing, and a lot of the smaller players kind of suck or are distracting. While I think you could care about the characters more, they live in a world you can care about because it basically makes sense, and is presented believably, as a real place of real physics and real people with broken bones. And the fact that we know nothing about Bourne is part of his appeal (though I admit it has limitations) -- as a guy who can't remember anything but a badass set of skills, he is the perfect POV character for the viewer who wishes he were him. Scott McCloud account for the popularity of superhero comics because under that mask, anyone could be Spiderman -- and even with the mask off, Peter Parker is so generic looking many of us can still feel close enough to his look to imagine ourselves as him. Jason Bourne has this same level of abstraction. Sometimes you want fine food, and sometimes in the pursuit of fine food disastrous things happen when the chef thinks he is better than he is. But sometimes you just need a good deli sandwich on your lunch break, and when everything on your block is fast food, a well made ruben is well worth respect.

Scott responded

In a way, you're right-- the Bourne movies are kind of perfect-- like a good ruben, they are lean, well-crafted works that certainly get the job done...

But I don't really care for rubens and, sometimes, you just want fast food-- now, that doesn't mean you have to get the triple cheeseburger with bacon, chili-fries and substitute a shake for the drink-- but a burger and fries can really hit the spot. Also, sometimes places let you substitute a healthier side and, sure, while a baked potatoe or salad may be better for you, that just doesn't go with that burger the same way the fries do. And sure, sometimes, they accidently put mayo on when you asked them to hold the mayo or the fries have been sitting out too long but, sometimes, the fries are just fresh out of the fryer and you've been depriving yourself of fast food for awhile and, when you taste it, it's absolute perfection. It's kind of like that.... I also get the feeling you're probably in much better shape than me.

Geoff responded

Scott, you used my metaphor too much and broke it. Now you owe me a new metaphor.


Anonymous said...

Geoff: I like this format of blog post. More, please!

Also, can we expect Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6 and/or movie review next month?

Jason said...

Hey ... MY name is Jason! Jason Bourne could be ME!

(I was so pissed off in the second one when he found out his real name was something else. That is the real reason this trilogy doesn't work. His real name has to be Jason.)

I agree, this is a fun blog format. Geoff, do one with me. We can do it live while I'm in town and then transcribe it! That's probably too much work.

neilshyminsky said...

I would probably be willing to do a back-and-forth with someone in response to Scott Pilgrim. I've had some pretty strong (largely negative) responses to the last couple books - I'll probably post some thoughts on my blog in the next few days. So someone could riff off those, or provide their own starting point to which I can react.

Unless no one wants to. In which case my feelings will be hurt.

c lue said...

There's a Scott Pilgrim versus Comic-Con banner hung over the top five floors of the Marriott in my neighborhood! LOL

How much is a new metaphor, in trade?

My father-in-law LOVES those movies. I wonder what difference it makes if you've read the books. Actually, he really prefers the books, I don't know about "loves" the movies; the extra details scintillate his reading experience.

Um, I have a comic to finish, I just wanted to say hey!

Robyrt said...

What do you guys think about the Bourne movies' widely imitated style of fight scenes - boxing-style contests of endurance, shaky-cam cinematography with lots of quick cuts, heavy use of the environment, gory details, etc? Plus or minus? Advance in filmmaking technology or passing fad like The Matrix?

dschonbe said...

@Scott - A lean ruben? Clearly you are not visiting the proper New York delis.

@Geoff - You describe taking out a plane with a truck as a bad thing. How can you not love the sheer spectacle of Bruce Willis riding on the back of a jet fighter with no pilot?

@neilshyminsky - Such a discussion of Scott Pilgrim 6 sounds entertaining to me. Count me in a as a vote in favor of it. I too haven't liked the later volumes as much as the first volume. I loved the subtle magical realism in the first volume that seems to have lost its subtelty.

-Dan S.

neilshyminsky said...

Dan wrote: "I loved the subtle magical realism in the first volume that seems to have lost its subtelty."

Absolutely. This is absolutely the biggest problem. It was cute when the magic popped up in such a way that it enhanced scene - it wasn't technically necessary, plot-wise, but it added some emotional or thematic heft. But in the last couple books, it often feels, variously, as if the magic either substitutes entirely for the plot or else it disrupts the scene or emotion and sends it veering in another direction.

A lot of the magic realism in the first book was either happening in dreams or was made to feel dream-like - very ethereal stuff, in any case, and it worked very well. (Even with something like the Save Point at Lee's Palace - haven't we all wished we could 'save' before having to have an awkward conversation, so that we could try it again?)

And when it wasn't particularly subtle or dreamy - and the notable exception in the first book is the battle - the more absurd stuff was contained and, so, made to seem appropriate to a particular kind of scene or moment: I'm perfectly okay with the big fights being completely over-the-top, especially because, early on, it looked like O'Malley was established that as a pattern. But it's just sort of ALL become absurd.

I'm wondering, actually, whether O'Malley found his early stuff (including Lost At Sea) a little too precious. How else to understand his incessant need to assert ironic distance from the material? I've only just started the new book, but it's filled with narrative self-reflexivity that undercuts all of the most emotionally resonant moments - Scott's kiss with Knives, his snarking at Envy, etc. And it's kind of annoying - it as if he's making fun of me for wanting to be invested in the characters and their feelings.

But I should probably save all this complaining until I finish the book. Maybe it'll surprise me.

neilshyminsky said...

Just finished the book. I was surprised, but not the good kind of surprised.

Wow. It was really, really bad.

James said...

Ha! I'd be up for doing a counterpoint with Neil, depending on how my reading of book 6 goes. I love Scott Pilgrim (and I love Neil[!!!]), but my only worry at the moment is that I wouldn't have much to counter-say about the series other than "I like it".

Though I thought your main problem with the series as it progressed was Scott being such a massive toolbox, so your comments here are interesting. (Man my book hasn't even dispatched yet c'mon.)

James said...

Though Geoff reads Scott Pilgrim, so maybe[!!!!] he'd be better. Maybe we'll all just hate it!

dschonbe said...

@James - Please do write something in favor of the series. Explain to me why I shouldn't be disappointed by how the series has played out. The first volume was so good, but the later volumes were so angsty (and not in a good way).

@Neil - That's disappointing. I haven't even got a copy yet. Maybe I'll wait until a library copy becomes available instead of buying...

This blog sure is the place to be :)

-Dan S.

neilshyminsky said...

James: It's hard for me to say whether the too-much, too-reflexive magic realism or Scott's douchebaggery is the biggest disappointment of the series. I think, on my blog, I've previously argued that it was the latter. But I don't think that they're disconnected - in the new book, there's a recurring device where Scott's memory is rendered like an 8-bit video game. And it's in moments like these that Scott's being an insensitive dick combines with the absurdity of the scene's presentation to take it to a whole other level.

But you're right. I was getting carried away by saying that the magic was the biggest problem. Because Scott is still the biggest problem. (Spoiler(?): There's a scene at the end where O'Malley seems to realize that the can't effectively recuperate Scott, so he takes Ramona down a notch instead. Ugh.)

The series works best, I think, when the the magic is at its most precious and unnecessary and when Scott is adorably naive; and it fails when the magic is nasty-ironic and fundamental to the story, and when Scott's naivete bleeds into willful ignorance and self-obsessed jerk territory. (The character bit also being my problem with a lot of the Frat Pack movies, like 'Knocked Up' - there's an epidemic of successful media about jerky losers.) And, unfortunately, the final book consists almost entirely of the latter stuff.

Dan: But if you wait too long, you'll miss out on the exchange! Timeliness matters!