Let’s Watch: The Bourne Trilogy
The Bourne films are more influential than people might want to admit. Think about the time “The Bourne Identity” came out. It was a few months before yet another Pierce Brosnan “James Bond” was to be released. Over the years before, spy films had gotten progressively silly. With more emphasis placed on gadgets & spectacle rather than the concept of espionage, the genre had become a parody of itself. “The Bourne Identity” reintroduced a level of realism that was missing from the genre at the time. This level of realism has been influential in multiple ways across multiple genres.
By the time the 2nd film was released, the style & tone shifted into a relentlessly intense spy thriller that had deeply pessimistic views of American politics & foreign policy. These films were some of the first to deal with post 9/11 paranoia & fears (The Bourne Identity was released just 9 months after 9/11). By the time “The Bourne Ultimatum” was released, the James Bond franchise had rebooted to be more realistic & somber-minded like the Bourne franchise. To think that “The Bourne Identity” was released the same year as “Die Another Day”, and is still a franchise that people today look back upon fondly. So, with a new take on the franchise soon to be released (The Bourne Legacy), let’s take a look at the franchise responsible for the “slightly” more realistic representation of the spy genre.
The Bourne Identity is a fast paced movie. Almost a little too fast. It also lacks the interesting & deeply cynical political perspective that made the sequels so interesting. You can tell almost immediately that this first film was directed with a totally different vision than the future films. This movie is slick, fast, and energetic. Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne with a certain kind of vulnerability that makes him instantly relatable, even though he could probably kick all our asses with ease. I’ve seen so many actors play the amnesiac/paranoia thing so conventionally and stupidly, that I almost dread when I see it in films. However, Matt Damon’s intensely focused demeanor makes him more interesting than the cloying stupid nobodies that I’ve seen on screen playing these types of roles. What makes the Bourne films work the most is the cast of talent revolving around Bourne.
In this case, we have good actors who give interesting performances in very tiny roles. Example: Clive Owen. He’s in the movie for maybe six minutes tops. He gets a final scene with Matt Damon that makes for some really interesting food for thought that grows into a bigger thing by the time the 3rd movie comes along. However, I feel like the movie is too “fast” because it doesn’t allow us to really know most of these characters, so they feel cheap & shallow. The love interest, played by Franka Potente, develops a relationship with Bourne that doesn’t feel earned. Chris Cooper plays a two dimensional villain, while Brian Cox plays a no-dimensional villain. Julia Stiles gets nothing to do except look at a computer (more on her character later). This movie is so fast, so filled with energy, it’s like the filmmakers had no idea what to do with. This underscores a problem with this franchise that I feel keeps me from loving these films… But, after Doug Liman opted out of directing this one, Paul Greengrass comes in and adds even more interesting political subtext and an introduction of a different way to shoot action…
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon, Brian Cox, Joan Allen, Karl Urban, Julia Stiles
The Bourne Supremacy, in my eyes, is an infinitely more interesting than the previous film. For one, within the first 10 minutes, the dead weight that was Franka Potente as Bourne’s obligatory one-dimensional girlfriend is whisked away from the movie to make room for a more interesting story with political subtext that feels deeply pessimistic about our government’s policy on national security, and the lengths it is willing to go to in order to protect it. Now, there’s less action in this one, but it’s a better movie for this reason. Mainly because we are given time to become immersed in the international intrigue afoot, and when the action scenes come, they’re awesome. In fact, there’s one fight scene towards the beginning of the 2nd act that is pretty much one of my favorite fight scenes I’ve seen in ANY movie. This film feels very visceral in a way that the previous film only flirted with. This movie gave birth to the new age of shaky-cam action. The camera is tight, shaky, and wild.
It almost feels like it was shot like a documentary. However, what makes these action scenes work (as opposed to the action films of today that rip off the shaky-cam style of action scenes) is that we know where everything is in relation to each other, and there is a sense of geography to those action scenes, even if the camera is shaky and spazzmatic. The acting is better this time around. Again, Matt Damon is surrounded by alot of great talent… and Karl Urban, but more on him later. Julia Stiles doesn’t have much to do in this one (or the previous one) except get slapped around a little by Jason Bourne. We get Joan Allen as a sorta/kinda sympathetic-to-Bourne’s-Case agent hot on his trailer, and Brian Cox gets a more interesting story arc as well. Now, the other… shall we say, more “foreign” villains don’t get much to do except a few scenes of awkward briefings. Karl Urban gets into a car chase with Bourne, and the car chase is awesome AS IF this guy was the big villain. But, he’s not, and he barely has anything to do in almost the entire movie until the plot calls for a car chase. “The Bourne Supremacy”, while a superior movie to its predecessor, is still a flawed yet very entertaining movie. The next film in the franchise seeks to pay off all these plot threads in a satisfying manner. Did they do that?
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Edgar Ramirez, Albert Finney
Holy sh*t, this movie is BADASS. All the themes that were introduced throughout the series get a satisfying resolution here. The political implications are delved into instead of merely being flirted with in the previous films. The documentary-stylized shooting also takes a more prominent role in this film, which makes for some really interesting cinematography choice. The movie throws alot of information at you, and trusts the audience to be able to keep up. I was surprised by how much Jason Bourne has seemed to take a back seat in this film in favor for supporting characters who round out the film. With Julia Stiles’ character, they introduce an element that wasn’t even alluded to in the previous films: the possibility of a relationship previous to the events of these films. Throughout the franchise, Bourne & Nicky Parsons (Stiles’ character) has had a particularly strange relationship of either not speaking to each other, or extremely awkward yet weirdly poignant moments.
Joan Allen & David Strathairn have great scenes that delve even deeper into the post-9/11 loss of privacy & security. In fact, all the supporting actors, even Edgar Ramirez who gets exactly one line of dialogue get their moments for character redemption. The action scenes present here are some of the best in this franchise. The chase scene in NYC alone is worth the price of admission. The film continues to experiment with the shaky-cam action method to spectacular (if slightly whiplash-inducing) results. This whole franchise has been filled with interesting weird creative choices, aka things you’re NOT supposed to do in an action film. But, somehow, this franchise made it all work, and this film is the capper to a series of films that, even though I may not be head-over-heels in love with them, have their place in film history.
The Bourne Franchise has had widespread effects across multiple genres. With the more realistic & less gadget-centric approach, the spy genre got a much needed facelift that caused The Bond Franchise to take a similar route. How many action movies have we watched with shaky-cam action? How many films have a documentary-minded aesthetic approach these days? The Bourne Trilogy helped to usher in an era of seriousness that was missing from the modern blockbuster at that time. If not particularly “classic” films, they cast a very large shadow over the upcoming “The Bourne Legacy”…
Remember to give me more suggestions of franchises that I should discuss in future “Let’s Watch” installments, and as always, thanks for reading.