One Is Safe
went to see The Bourne Ultimatum. Jason Bourne, bionic
man with a sad heart. Human machine with a restless soul.
Bourne really wants to do good things, but—like St. Paul writing
in the New Testament, “I do not do the good I want, but the
evil I do not want is what I do”—he keeps on chasing, tracking,
beating and killing. With exceptional skill.
man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?”
Paul asks. That’s Jason’s question, too, sort of. He doesn’t
know who he is or why he does what he does or why he is cursed
with such loneliness.
But—the Bourne movies aren’t really existentially haunting
forays into the psyche of a complex character. They are action
movies. And though we feel for Bourne we also pull for him,
the way we do for a favorite quarterback. He’s the Ben Rothlisberger
of hit men. You can sit back on your cushioned seat and let
Bourne execute his plays, transporting you from to Moscow
to Paris to Tangiers—everywhere, and with no pesky layovers.
Bourne Ultimatum is all about action and entertainment.
But if the action movie trailers I saw before it began are
any indication of change in the genre, then grim business
lies ahead for moviegoers.
I actually closed my eyes and sunk deep into my seat during
parts of the trailers—not so much because of the violence,
but because of the sense that paranoia, terror, anger and
frightened bewilderment are driving these plots at reckless
Playing heavily on fear of Islamism, The Kingdom looks
to be a heavy blend of fear-mongering and flag-waving. It
is set in Saudi Arabia where a group of Americans are killed
in a building bombed by terrorists. So the FBI sends in an
elite team to find the killers. But the terrorists are ruthless,
soul-less, brutal and omnipresent. They are unafraid to do
what it takes to kill Americans and Americans seem pretty
powerless in the face of such rigor. In fact, the movie’s
tag line is “How do you stop an enemy who isn’t afraid to
Right after the trailer for The Kingdom rumbled to
its explosive end, the trailer for American Gangster
followed. IMDB says the movie is about a drug lord smuggling
heroin into Harlem using coffins of American soldiers shipped
home from Vietnam. But the trailer paints a more troubling
story, making it some kind of cinematic shadow side to The
Godfather. Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, formerly
a driver for one of the city’s largest black crime bosses,
rises to power, fuelled by the ruthless pursuit of business
supremacy and racial revenge.
Brave One brings the brutality back to a smaller, but
no less, frightening, scale. Jodie Foster, after an attack
during which her boyfriend is killed and she is gravely wounded,
moves back into her life convulsed with fear and unable to
function. Finally she finds a coping mechanism: vigilantism
for the healing of her loss and madness. Eventually she discovers
she is becoming the violence she herself is trying to exterminate.
And apart from her own acts of revenge, she remains small,
vulnerable and a target.
Sentence starts out with a target, too. A high-school
boy, driving home with his father, Nick Hume, played by Kevin
Bacon, after victory in a regional hockey tournament, is killed
in a convenience-store hold-up. The normally mild- mannered
Hume takes a cue from Jodie Foster’s character in Brave
One and goes on a vendetta to kill all the people associated
with his son’s death. But in response, the family of one of
Hume’s victims goes on a crusade as mad as Hume’s—to kill
all of Hume’s family.
By the time I saw the last image of Kevin Bacon’s beaten body
I was actually relieved to see the insipid face of Nicolas
Cage in the trailer for another National Treasure outing.
What is going on? These weren’t trailers that presented fear,
revenge and paranoia as subjects of entertainment. Instead
they all seemed to telegraph a real and corporate sense of
our lives as endangered. No place is safe. Not for Americans
in an Islamic country. Not for African-American families in
crime-run New York. Not for a woman trying to have a simple
love life. Not for a man trying to raise his hockey-playing
son. Everyone, everywhere is under attack.
But not under attack the way Jason Bourne is. Or James Bond
is. Or Frank Martin from 2002’s The Transporter is.
Those men aren’t us. They exist outside the realm of actual
fear, securing in us the belief that we never have to be the
violent action figure; they do it for us. And then they go
off to some country place in France or Switzerland and drink
some of that very good wine they have earned with their super-human
But in The Kingdom, American Gangster, The
Brave One and Death Sentence, the violent
action figure is small and human. Like you or me. And the
violence is not elegantly choreographic. It’s bloody, loud
and manic. And the locations are not exotic, but banal—war
zones, city streets, parks, a gas station. The kinds of places
we know the way Jason Bourne knows Milan.