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No One Is Safe


I went to see The Bourne Ultimatum. Jason Bourne, bionic man with a sad heart. Human machine with a restless soul. The anti-Bond.

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.

“Wretched 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.

The 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 speed.

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 die?”

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.

The 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.

Death 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 prowess.

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.

—Jo Page

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