Friday, March 27, 2009

The Bourne Trilogy

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of action films. I’m not saying I mind them per se, but the majority consists of Jerry Bruckheimer and his clones blowing shit up. Blowing shit up is just about the epitome of boring unless you are there, on site, in the flesh, feeling the driving thud as it happens. In a film, if there’s no good emotional or adrenaline rush building up to the explosion, it’s just a ton of noise.

Another beef I have with the modern action film comes with their other main ingredient: the fight scene. Most fight scenes these days seem to be filmed by strapping cameras to the participants and fast cutting the heltery-skeltery mess together in some kind of epilepsy inducing chaos. Honestly, I don’t want to sound like some curmudgeonly old man, but Clint Eastwood’s fight sequences in Every Which Way But Loose were more exciting because you could tell what was going on. If I had any complaints at all about The Dark Knight, it was that all the fight films seemed to take place inside a very dark closet with a slow strobe going on.

The Matt Damon vehicle of the three (possibly a fourth in the makings) Bourne films tread sometimes dangerously close to a couple of these pet peeves of mine, but they manage to be rather fun little slices of violence that didn’t make me feel like a cretin for enjoying them.

The Bourne Identity, Written by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, and Julia Stiles, Directed by Doug Liman, Universal Pictures, 2002

The first of the three films that make up the Bourne Trilogy, based on the novels by Robert Ludlum , The Bourne Identity follows the plight of an amnesiac (Matt Damon) fished out of the Mediterranean by an Italian fishing boat. At first, they assume he’s dead, then the boat’s “surgeon” determines otherwise. The bullets lodged in his back are removed as is a strange laser device which beams out the numbers of a Swiss deposit box.

Fully recuperated, Bourne sets off for Zurich. He is rousted for sleeping in the park by two police, who he quickly attacks and incapacitates when they try to arrest him for vagrancy and no identity papers. This turns out to be just one of the many skills Bourne finds himself surprised to possess including proficiency in several languages. Here he ditches his red coat as being too distinctive – and this is the very last time this character will ever, ever try to disguise himself despite being wanted by the CIA, Russian assassins, Interpol and many others.

At the bank in Zurich, our protagonist opens his deposit box, whereupon he finds a gun, several different passports under different names from different countries but all with his photograph, and a ton of assorted dough. He opts to go with Jason Bourne, the American passport’s name, and flees with the cash but not the gun.

And from there things quickly become a game of chase. A contact at the Swiss Bank calls CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and repeated attempts are made to capture Bourne. All of these attempts fail, as Bourne proves to be an incredibly lethal and effective killing machine. Along the way, Bourne picks up a young woman, Marie (Franka Potente), offering her twenty thousand dollars to drive him from Zurich to Paris. It isn’t long before the CIA are on the scent and hunting both parties.

Essentially, the film trades off back and forth between the hunted, the various killers hunting them, and the bloodless bureaucrats back at Langley who manipulate everything. Chris Cooper plays his usual hard ass self, though you wish sometimes he’d take a light role just to see the man stretch himself. I had suspected romance between Bourne and the rather minor character of Nicolette merely because she is played by Julia Stiles and when big names meet in a film, often there is romance. That that didn’t happen flouted my expectations enough to earn my respect. Clive Owens, poor lad, is entirely and hugely wasted in the film as an assassin brought in for the middle of the film and dispatched by Bourne all too quickly for my tastes.

The film is relatively fast-paced and the action sequences and the plotting are clever enough to keep you entertained with their ingenuity. Matt Damon is effective playing an emotionally locked person struggling with something he rather despises about himself, a role not unfamiliar from his turns as Will Hunter in Good Will Hunting or Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It is a film that, even as it is self-contained and could end where it does, clearly tips its hand toward the sequels coming down the pike.

The Bourne Supremacy, Written by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Julia Stiles, Directed by Paul Greengrass, Universal Pictures, 2004

With a change of director in the second film The Bourne Supremacy from Dough Liman (who helmed the party films Swingers and Go in the 90s), to Paul Greengrass, the action became bigger, the fight sequences more involved. The style of filming seemed to shift also to one that featured far more hand-held camera action, a trend I absolutely loathe. Yes, if it’s a street scene or somewhere you want to give the audience a really personal you-are-in-the-moment feeling then fine, that works in small doses. But there is no justification for filming closed door CIA briefings with shaky jittery camera work. Aesthetically, it serves no function and everyone does it and the whole thing gives me a bit of dizziness induced nausea.

One of the treats at least in these scenarios is that Bourne proves effective at using what he finds around him to disable or kill those who are sent to kill him. In one amusing scene, he ably defends himself with a rolled up magazine – which should give you some idea as to how deadly we’re supposed to consider him. It probably reflects badly on me that I find inventive killing situations rather amusing, a holdover from my teenage years watching Friday the 13th films, I suppose.

Living in a small coastal village in India with Marie from the first film, Bourne thinks only of a quiet life living off his remaining funds, trying to piece together his past and who he is and how he came to be what he is. Over the years, he and Marie have put together a scrap book of news clippings, jottings, illustrations, maps, supposedly about his various assassination activities.

Anyone who’s seen enough action pictures knows that it isn’t long before Bourne is back to being pursued or that his girlfriend won’t ultimately make it. Hunted by a Russian version of himself, Bourne and Marie try to flee their Indian village, but Marie is shot and their Jeep plummets into the river. The scenes of her death and his tormented escape underwater reminded me of nothing so much than comparable scenes from the Lethal Weapon franchise which is unfortunate and unfair.

And again the chase is on. Not only have the Russians assassinated Bourne’s girlfriend, they also set him up as the fall guy for a robbery committed by the same assassin, leaving evidence implicating Bourne at the scene. This brings the CIA back into the matter and what shifts things slightly here and in the follow-up film is that Bourne is now the hunter and the hunted. Not only does he believe that it was the CIA who set up the hit on him, but he is again hot on the trail of the special training program, Operation Treadstone, that produced him and other killers like him. We hop all around the globe, back to Italy, to Germany, to Langley again, where we meet a new CIA character, Pamela Landy (played excellently well by Joan Allen in a mix of tough and feminine where neither tips the girlie/bitchy balance that strong females must manage), and ultimately in Russia where the climactic car chase takes place.

I say climactic car chase, which is not to make you think that this is quite like any other car chase you’ve ever seen. Greengrass turns the warrens of streets and intersections of highways, public transit, and other various byways into an enormous chess board as both killers alternately hunt and flee from each other. This ties neatly together, a bit too neatly, with another thread the film has been weaving that of one of Bourne’s first assassinations, a Russian politician named Vladimir Neski, who had information about a thief among the CIA, and Bourne’s desire to apologize to Neski’s daughter for the killing.

The film concludes, as did the first one, though far more overtly, with near insistence that we’ll be back for a third helping. And we will.

The Bourne Ultimatum, Written by Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, Starring Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, and Julia Stiles, Directed by Paul Greengrass, Universal Pictures, 2007

It turns out that the closing scene of the second film actually takes place almost near the end of the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum. This is initially a bit of a comfort, because when the second film’s climax in a Russian highway tunnel ends, Bourne merely staggers away from a massive amount of property damage and from his police pursuers. That the very next scene should take place months later in New York City without ever explaining how Bourne eluded his pursuers and got out of Russia seems a bit of a cheat.

It’s all very well and good having a superman CIA assassin who can kill you with a magazine or a bath towel, but we should at least hew a bit close to reality at some stage. Alas, there is an opening sequence chase for this third film, reuniting most of the cast and crew of the second and first films, and picking up from that Russian tunnel. However, Bourne’s ultimate escape is again glossed over in favor of yet another flashback sequence to another mystery shrouded event in Bourne’s past.

And scene.

Wait, what?

Oh, never mind.

Next we pick up with a reporter for The Guardian who has apparently got wind of Operation Treadmill, the super secret CIA program to create Jason Bourne and countless other super-assassins. Bourne contacts him to get information out of him about his own past, which quickly leads to more action. And of course, Bourne is still traveling about, apparently without any regard for the fact that international police and intelligence services all over the world know what he looks like. Does he grow his hair out? He does not. Grow a moustache? Nope. How about a hat or a change of clothes? Surely he must consider at the very least a slight disguise. Not a bit of it. It must be something in Damon’s contract that he will not wear funny latex noses or prosthetic limbs, that he will just march automaton like through the film as recognizable as George Washington or Paris Hilton.

Joan Allen is back on the case of hunting Bourne despite not getting him the last time around, assisting CIA section chief Noah Vosen (the always excellent David Strathairn) who has come on to the case because of the Guardian reporter’s sniffing about. Using broad anti-terrorism justifications to excuse his methods (where have we heard that before?), Vosen is hot on rooting out the CIA leak providing The Guardian with their scoops. To this end, Vosen unleashes more of the Treadstone program assassins (now renamed Blackbriar after being “officially” shut down).

Somewhere along the way, Bourne meets up again with Julia Stiles’ character of Nicolette (now given the full name of Nicky Parsons) and takes her with him, leading Vosen to believe she and Bourne are in league with the leak. More assassins follow, more action, by now you know what to expect. My suspicions returned that Stiles and Damon would ultimately hook up, but at least Greengrass and the series writer Tony Gilroy are determined to thwart that coupling.

Bourne ultimately goes back to New York where we again see the scene from the end of the second film, which sets up the final show down between Bourne, Vosen, and the sinister Dr. Albert Hirsch (the titanic Albert Finney), head of Treadstone/Blackbriar’s psychological program, the piece that made the assassin’s into who they were. This final confrontation reveals all the secrets including the one that breaks Bourne’s amnesia completely. It’s probably not unfair to say like Vosen’s national security justifications for his behavior, this final reveal, stands as something of a rebuke to the American populace in the age of the Global War on Terror.

A bit silly, a bit over-the-top, but always fast and at least inventive, the Bourne films are really well done mindless entertainment. You are expected to greatly suspend your disbelief, but no more than you would in any other number of action films, and the main reward at least is that you and your own intelligence aren’t insulted to get to that end. It may sound contradictory to say that the film is both mindless and one that doesn’t insult your intelligence, but the plotting is just that tight, just that unpredictable in places. With writing this good, no wonder the cast is stellar.


Andrea said...


My primary gripe with the films is that they quickly part ways with the books. I am not a fan of novels in trilogy (or longer) form. And, I'm not really a Ludlum fan, but the Bourne trilogy ( which will forever remain a trilogy, despite the new books coming out.. which are not written by Ludlum but by someone else.. ahem..) is without a doubt one of my all time favorites. Excellent writing. And the movies... they are ok.

The Critic said...

See, I haven't actually read the books, but what little research I did explained that they were really about 'Nam and that probably seemed a little dated in the 2000s. Also, apparently, the movies softened him up a little, made him more human.

I've not actually read any Robert Ludlum, but I don't quite care for these "estate" books where someone else takes over a series after the author's death.

The Critic said...

And wherefore dost thou sigh?

Andrea said...

A sigh of relief. I was looking forward to this review, and I was happy to see it finally posted.

A sigh of, " I wish you'd read the books, they are actually quite good".

I have this issue a lot with novels vs. film. I enjoy both, but regularly enjoy the novels so much more. Another example, White Oleander. I LOVE this novel. I re-read it every summer. It is beautiful. The movie, while decent(so far as movies go) , is extremely, depressingly shallow in comparison.

Dave said...

Although I have not read the books, I would agree that they probably are better. As you two English nerds know already, they edit the books down so that they can still make an excessively long three hour movie. This cuts out almost the whole story, and from what I've heard about it from those who've read the books, altered the whole story completely.
Since our American public is always in need of entertainment and mostly full of ignorant people(myself included), action movies reign supremo'. Americans like shiny things, flashy things, things that go bang, pop, pow, etc. The inclusion of firearms, unrealistic technological spy gadgetry, and excessive pyrotechnics makes for some killer entertainment for those people who probably used to fry ants with magnifying glasses as children(once again, myself included).
We are a culture of 'blow shit up' mentality and the Bourne movies feed our fattening egomaniacal outlook on the world.
I love the Bourne movies and action films in general.
I do agree that the modern day filming of action movies seems to have the intention of inducing epileptic seizures. Old westerns are a bad ass example of good action flick filming. Even the dialogue and characters seem more believable somehow.