Revisiting the Bourne Trilogy

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I decided to rewatch the immensely popular and influential Universal Pictures action franchise this weekend because it’s relaunched August 10 with The Bourne Legacy.

I say “relaunch” because it’s not just another sequel—the director of the second and third film, Paul Greengrass, chose not to return, as did the star, Matt Damon—and I wouldn’t call it a reboot either. Instead, Tony Gilroy, the writer of the first three movies, adapting the books by author Robert Ludlum, is directing and co-writing this fourth one, introducing a new agent who was in a program that paralleled Treadstone, the CIA black ops outfit that set Bourne on the world. The new agent is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), and from the trailer it seems like a familiar story: his bosses turn against him, forcing him to run, much like Jason Bourne did.

I am a sucker for these movies. They certainly borrow plenty from James Bond, while leaving behind any humour or camp. Bourne is American to the bone, and though the character was birthed out of cold war thrillers, the movies have a real 21st Century anxiety to them: a fear of governmental backroom dealings, with covert nastiness frowned upon, all the while celebrating the ingenious individual who kicks serious ass. He’s nearly a superhero. There’s never a massive car wreck nor muscle-bound killer he can’t ignore, best and walk away from, even though dispatching people with his bare hands carves out just a little more of his soul every time.

The Bourne Identity came out in June 2002. Rumour has it the production was troubled. Director Doug Liman had three features to his credit, including the excellent Go and Swingers, but this one was shooting as the world changed on September 2001. If you watch the bonus features on The Bourne Identity DVD you’ll see the filmmakers talk about an alternative bookending for the story, one that kind-of absolves the lying CIA operators, indicating a change back in Langley, and in an American public more tolerant of covert ops in the wake of 9/11. From what they say, the extra scenes were left out because test audiences liked it the way it was. Trying to read the zeitgeist in its midst is expensive, and foolish, work.

A bit of trivia here: The Bourne Identity actually was made once before, for TV, with Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne. It remains unseen by me, but I’m curious.

Matt Damon plays Bourne in the features. He’s perfect for the part: fit, athletic, and blessed with that thing some actors have, a way of conveying intellect without saying much. He’s also got an anti-glamour puss quality, which works well for a credible secret agent; he disappears into a crowd.

Bourne is an amnesiac, found belly-up in the Mediterranean off the French coast. He has a Swiss bank account number embedded in his hip, but not much else. Collecting his belongings at the bank—a pistol is left behind but he takes the many passports and cash in a number of currencies—he starts to discover his other skills. He may not know much about himself, but he knows a thing or two about hand-to-hand combat, and seems to have no fear of heights. As he pieces together who he is (assassin) and what he was doing when he lost his memory (assassinating), he joins forces with a German drifter, Marie (Franka Potente), who has a few of her own problems. Together they traipse across Europe, looking for answers and trying to avoid men with guns. One of the great pleasures of the these films is the location cinematography: Zurich, Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow… these are but a few of metropolitan centres whose streets get a wetdown in the Bourne movies.

The series’ CIA puppetmasters, including characters played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney, are each slimier than the next. But the intrigue, and entertainment value, these top-of-the-line thesps bring to the sections that interrupt a breathless and ongoing series of chases, is immeasurable. Also, check out a pre-stardom Clive Owen as one of the heavies in The Bourne Identity. It’s probably the closest he’ll ever get to being James Bond.

The first sequel, The Bourne Supermacy, is my favorite of the three. Released in 2004, it gives our hero fresh motivation to track down his makers and settle their hash but good. Bourne says much less in this picture, but as his memory starts returning, we see his bloody deeds in flashback, and the latticework of emotional scars as he figures out who he is and what he’s done. The film also gives Julia Stiles, an actor whose performances I’ve always enjoyed, a growing role in the series, and a great, almost-silent Russian heavy from Karl Urban.

The second film was directed by Paul Greengrass, who with cinematographer Oliver Wood and editors Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse, really established a look that carried over into action movies following. Hand-held and roaming cameras document the performers foot and car chases, while super-choppy editing bring a lot of suspense and excitement to the film and its follow-up, The Bourne Ultimatum. It’s a fine line, though, between exciting and confusing and/or nauseating. Other directors have tried it since to much less successful effect. Generally, I am more of a fan of the less-jittery, locked-down, lets-choreograph-our-actors-fighting-it-out style of action, but big credit to the filmmakers here for bringing a new aesthetic to the genre.

The third film, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), continues the momentum and thrills of the previous instalments. One of the cleverest things the script does is situate the first half of the picture, chronologically, before the final scene of the second film. It’s a bit hard to explain, but it makes loads of sense if you see them back-to-back, which I would recommend. I also really enjoyed the rooftop chase in Tangiers, capped off by a great moment where the camera follows Bourne as he jumps from a roof through an open window.

However, after the more serious emotional impact of The Bourne Supremacy—the lesson that the violent sins of Jason Bourne’s past are inescapable—the third film is a bit of a letdown. Its action beats and car-chases are very much a repeat of what we’ve seen before (the stunt mentioned above not withstanding), and frankly, Albert Finney has too much of the same jowly, brooding presence as Brian Cox to stand out from the pack of baddies. Damon wasn’t much of a fan of Tony Gilroy’s script, as he admitted later—he might have a point if you consider its simplicity over the director’s magic—which certainly explains why he didn’t continue in the role. (He was quoted as saying that he wouldn’t come back without Greengrass, even though a script by George Nolfi for another movie that included Jason Bourne was reportedly written.)

Despite my gripes, taken as a unit, the three films offer A-list action. I’d go so far to say that the Bourne trilogy is the best action franchise of the past decade, and forced the great-grandaddy of espionage cinema, 007, to up his game, which he did to much acclaim in Casino Royale (2006).

One other thing to mention about this year’s The Bourne Legacy. Author Robert Ludlum only wrote three Bourne books; the movies borrowed the titles but took creative license with the material. After Ludlum’s death, Eric Van Lustbader continued to write the character in books, including the title The Bourne Legacy, but I gather than the new movie borrows nothing from that book besides its name.

UPDATE: Here’s my review of The Bourne Legacy.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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