Bourne to be classics ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bourne to be classics

The first three Bourne films is one of my favourite film series, but I've never actually seen all three back-to-back - in fact, I may have not even rewatched any of them from start to finish. Mostly I just watch clips of its action sequences; each one has at least one signature hand-to-hand fight scene and one car chase scene. And most of them are terrific action sequences, among the best of the entire action film genre - which is why, as an action film aficionado, I like this series so much. But partly also why I like it is that it is, in my book, one of the most consistently good movie series ever. Unlike most trilogies, there's not a single disappointing entry, and certainly not any one that feels like a major letdown from its predecessors. Which is a pretty rare accomplishment - but since Hollywood just can't leave well enough alone, there's now a fourth instalment to potentially spoil that record. So before we review that, let's take a look back at what was previously known as the Bourne Trilogy (and will probably still be known as the Bourne Trilogy with Matt Damon In It.)

The Bourne Identity (2002)
My rating:

Perhaps the most notable thing about the first of the series is that it turned out as good as it is. It underwent a troubled production, with reshoots and script rewrites that took it over budget and delayed its initial release. This is undoubtedly why director Doug Liman was removed from (or quit) the series - which, given his replacement in Paul Greengrass, was likely for the better. Still, Liman helmed the film that started it all, and his vision of a smart, realistic spy action film survives despite the studio interference. In 2002, the Pierce Brosnan era of James Bond films was winding down with Die Another Day, one of the cheesiest and most over-the-top in the long-running series - and that same year, the Vin Diesel-starring xXx tried to be the "extreme attitude" version of Bond. Compared to those two, The Bourne Identity felt like a breath of fresh air.

In particular, the fight scene between Bourne and Castel, the first of the CIA assassins sent to kill our amnesiac hero. It's short and brutal and I unreservedly love it; it's perhaps the first time I've ever seen a fight between two combatants who are trained not to fight, but to kill. A great many action movies made in the succeeding years owe a debt to this one scene. Aside from it, there's a fun little car chase (that would be eclipsed by Greengrass' work in the sequels) and a tense cat-and-mouse hunt through a rural countryside (with Clive Owen!). Still, nothing beats that early fight scene; certainly nothing in the climax, which feels curiously anti-climactic, perhaps a casualty of the bickering between Liman and Universal Pictures. It also doesn't feel as consistent tonally as the later Greengrass-helmed entries; at times, there are glimpses of a light-heartedness that seems incongruous with its two sequels.

But that may be due to the romance between Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz, played by Franka Potente. It's the only film in the series in which Bourne isn't alone and hunted for the majority of the running time, and thus it's the only one in which he gets to make an emotional connection with another person. Their romance works, largely due to both actors; Potente is appealing, and Damon ever only allows a hint of a genuine smile when he's talking to her. But what Damon's performance is most notable for is turning him into a terrifically effective action hero. Back then, no one thought he had that in him at all - and while he proved up to the physical requirements by doing most of his own stunts, his tightly-controlled acting also helped create an indelible character in the tormented, deceptively deadly Bourne. As a thinking person's action movie, it succeeds handily, and did it it many ways that we had never seen before.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
My rating

A new director, a new visual and narrative style, and a bona fide classic film franchise is Bourne (hee). The Bourne Identity was a respectable success, if a little more critically than financially, but The Bourne Supremacy ramps up all its predecessor's strengths and improves on the flaws. The signature hand-to-hand fight scene is every bit as brutal and bloody. The car chase features a lot more vehicular carnage and makes the one from the first film look lame (which it isn't; it's just that this one is so much more thrilling). Where the pace of the previous one felt conventional, with expositionary and character-building scenes interspersed between action setpieces, this one is gripping and propulsive from start to finish. If there's one weakness, it's that the plot is almost too hard to follow. There's no easy audience surrogate character like Marie; Bourne is practically as much an enigma as anyone else, in a story full of practiced deception and hidden agendas.

Of course, Greengrass' direction doesn't make it any easier either. But I'll defend his much-maligned shaky-cam style anytime; there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and Greengrass knows how to do it right. His most well-known previous credit, the faux-documentary Bloody Sunday, made him an unusual choice for a big-budget Hollywood actioner, but it proved to be an inspired one. Unlike the imitators, his style of filming action scenes isn't haphazard and mindlessly chaotic; he chooses his shots, angles and cuts very, very deliberately. He plays scrupulously fair in showing you exactly what you need to figure out what's going on, and you can figure it out if you're attentive enough. And you can then immerse yourself in the immensely thrilling sense of immediacy and urgency that it creates, and that just so happens to be terrifically well-suited to a spy action thriller.

But what makes this film perhaps the best in the series - and yes, I do think it's the best in the series - is the emotional journey that Bourne undertakes. Credit for this goes to screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who took the previous entry's happy ending and completely shits over it - but in so, gives Jason Bourne a motive that we've never seen in an action hero before. People still make the mistake that the movie is all about his revenge; it's not, not at all. It's about his need to know the truth of who he was and what he did, and why the girl he loved had to pay the price for his sins. It isn't till almost the very end that this is revealed, but upon subsequent viewings, it's there in Damon's remarkably subtle performance. Bourne is never truly angry or vicious throughout - just frustrated by his memory loss and haunted by his guilt. And it culminates in a quietly poignant scene that's the last thing you'd expect in a spy action thriller. For doing what it does tremendously well, and daring to be even more... yes, I think this is the one that'll stand out as the best in the franchise.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
My rating:

I remember being pretty pumped for this movie, to the point where I forked out good dough for Gold Class seats. It was worth it. The early scene set at London's Waterloo Station is a bravura sequence of crackerjack tension, in which Bourne tries to herd a hapless journalist out of a gauntlet of CIA assassins, demonstrating our hero's quick thinking and street smarts in addition to his already-known badassery. This third entry greatly extends the role of Nicky Parsons, a character who had been on the fringes of the previous two; Julia Stiles is an always welcome presence and makes a good match with Damon. (Although it's never very clear why she would help Bourne - seems like Stockholm Syndrome more than anything else.) Once again we get one terrific fight scene and one terrific car chase scene; the latter especially is the most bone-jarring (and expensive) one yet. And as a conclusion to the trilogy, it does a nice job of calling back to scenes from the previous films, and even reinterprets the final scene from The Bourne Supremacy in a clever way.

So why the lower rating? Because what's lost is the emotional depth of its immediate predecessor. This time, Bourne is on a quest to discover the truth of his past as a man-made killing machine, which is a little less compelling than a man driven to atone for his past sins out of mourning for his lost love. There are small references to the grief he still feels for Marie, but they don't stand out amidst the railroad plot. Which is what this movie is almost entirely - a bullet train of an action-thriller that dashes breathlessly from one plot point to another. The Bourne Supremacy was that too, until the scene with Neski's daughter changed everything. This one doesn't. What it has is when Bourne returns to the research centre where Operation Treadstone began, where he first started becoming what he is now - and frankly, it feels a bit of a letdown. It feels like the whole movie should've been leading up to something more revelatory, more surprising.

It feels much more like a Greengrass film, less of a Gilroy one. Gilroy's emphasis on Bourne's emotional journey is replaced by Greengrass' political leanings, seen in how he villainises the CIA as running a black ops unit that seems to spend as much time killing civilians who threaten to expose them as they do stopping actual terrorist threats. (Gilroy's screenplay draft was reportedly completely unused, and Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi were doing emergency rewrites in the midst of shooting.) And it's also telling that of all the heartless CIA suits in the series, the only two with a conscience are women. Still, the white-knuckle tension and intelligent, realistic take on modern spy action are present and accounted for, making this a worthy entry and conclusion to the series. There's sure as hell no drop in quality in the action scenes, which, let's face it, is what we come to these movies for.


I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating and elaborating on: the Bourne series is notable as much for how influential it is as how good it is. The fight scenes in particular; if The Bourne Identity's fight was fresh and unique at the time, since then there've been an embarrassment of riches in terms of quick, brutal and realistic (well, more realistic) fight scenes. But often, that's the only thing the other movies managed to imitate successfully. The unrelenting pace, the grittily real tone, the scrupulous respect for the audience's intelligence - these more intangible things are still unparalleled. So yeah, as this post title indicates, the Bourne Trilogy (with Matt Damon In It) are bona fide modern film classics in my book. They sit at the pinnacles of their genre. Anyone who doesn't like 'em, you can pretty much write them off as someone who just doesn't get action movies. (Yes, such people exist.)


Gerard Dodd said...

Hey, Iv been following your stuff for a while. Your reviews are really cool. I was just wondering, quite random really, I have a blog of my own a while now and was always wondering how you find and include the "star rating" above your reviews? it's something I have been wanting to add to my own.

Thank you. Gerard.

TMBF said...

@Gerard keating: Not sure what you mean. I created the star image myself, then uploaded it to the blog.

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