It was supposed to be True Lies that saved the genre. As the Bond franchise continued to settle for spectacle over substance, James Cameron’s overinflated spy flick was destined to change the face of onscreen espionage forever. Turned out, it ended up being nothing more than the director’s inspired action filmmaking, and that’s about it. Even with the nuclear explosions, high rise chase scenes, and last act Harrier jet jive, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold were not the cinematic operatives the public was aching for. Instead, it would be another eight years before Robert Ludlam’s famed black ops assassin would get re-imagined to fit a post-millennial mindset. Instead of turning to bigger and badder special effects, filmmakers Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass brought the secret agent back down to earth, and in doing so, completely rewrote the rulebook on the dying aesthetic.
The resulting films - The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum, are masterworks of compact storytelling and human physicality. They offer realistic plots accented by occasional overreaching ability. In our lead, the monolithic hero Jason Bourne, we have a well trained, tripwire force of nature, capable of constantly being one step ahead of his ever-present pursuers. Yet contrary to his ingrained, almost brainwashed capability for survival, there’s a sad, disconnected man who simply wants to remember who he is. Ludlam’s greatest contrivance was the state of amnesia that Bourne finds himself in. It allows for a palpable level of realism interspersed among the fistfights, car chases, and psychologically challenged intelligence game playing.
Identity centers on Bourne, rescued while floating out at sea, unaware of who he is or how he got there. Through a course of investigation and information, he finds a link to the CIA, their elite corps of international assassins, and the possibility of massive internal corruption. Supremacy sees a Russian conspiracy trying to frame Bourne for a hit against his own people, pushing the agency to try and silence him once more. Ultimatum sees the heretofore amnesiac spy recovering his memory, realizing what he’s become, and coming face to face with the people who poisoned him so. There are dozens of subplots pulsating through each film, but to discuss them openly would ruin the revelation for those interested in experiencing the franchise fresh.
Anyone looking for careful translations of Ludlam’s work should seek out a Richard Chamberlain starring TV movie from 1988. Its Bourne is very faithful to the first novel. But in The Bourne Identity (and the subsequence films in the series), the charismatic killer is retuned to fit a more contemporary ideal. The original spy was part of a Vietnam era setting. There was backstory with an Asian family and a desire for revenge when they eventually died. Now, he’s a man lost in a world he doesn’t remember, instinctually doing a job he can’t recall. Throughout the first film, his struggle for self is offset by a failed mission, a rogue African exile, and the CIA’s need to plug any potential leaks that could compromise their illegal operations. This makes the Bourne films multifaceted as well as singular in design and direction.
So does the love story. Identity really relies on Bourne’s connection to the aimless, drifting Marie. In her, he sees a kindred spirit, a young woman who is as equally lost as he. She, on the other hand, sees a strong, silent hero who can save her from a life without rhyme, reason, or purpose. Several times throughout the first film, Bourne tries to turn her away. He offers her money (her main driving force) and freedom, yet she is captivated by the broken man in her presence. A certain maternal instinct takes over, and their one love scene is more tender and heartbreaking than erotic. Indeed, this relationship needs to be believable and potent. Otherwise, the plot machinations that surround it would seem arbitrary and without motive.
The final element mandated is the need for an outwardly benevolent but inwardly corrupt villainy. In this case, the CIA will do quite nicely. Only in the first Bourne film is there another situation worth considering (the botched assassination of angry African Nykwana Wombosi). In the sequels, we are only concerned with our hero taking on the baseless bureaucrats who want him terminated, with extreme prejudice. Between Alexander Conklin, Ward Abbott, Pamela Landy, and Noah Vosen, we have enough paper pushing precariousness to put even the most skilled agent on edge. Add to that the computer bank of trackers, grid wired to every manner of surveillance on the planet, and you create a monumental (and monstrous) task for Bourne to overcome. Of course, it’s not a matter of if he will succeed. It’s all a question of how - and at what cost.
With that, the franchise found a perfect starting point. The Bourne Identity is action packed yet personal, encompassing all manner of international intrigue while keeping the narrative squarely focused on who this character really is. Matt Damon delivers in the role, creating a believable sense of specialist and psychological sufferer. We never doubt his abilities or his angst. He’s an unlikely action hero, too clean cut and white bread to seem capable of such shocking acts. But as this series will show, Bourne is all about thwarting expectation and delivering on his promise. Director Liman lingers on moments of self-discovery, allowing Damon to dig deep into his character’s troubled soul. We never see it displayed in histrionics, however. It almost always arrives in a look, or a fleeting troubled glance.
As the object of his growing affections, the choice of Run Lola Run‘s Franke Potente is inspired. She’s just pretty enough to be alluring, just practical enough to withstand Bourne’s larger than life tendencies. She’s an excellent match for the unlikely element presented by Damon. Together, they’re like an ordinary revamp of Bond and one of his babes. Indeed, all throughout the Bourne films, we see the old school machismo and borderline misogyny of the original spy efforts constantly deconstructed and destroyed. Unlike True Lies, which saw Cameron utilizing the hoary he-man themes in a subtle, satiric manner (Jamie Lee Curtis’ striptease, as an example), Liman - and later Greengrass - simply ignored the archetypes. The result was films that felt alive and new.
It’s amazing how well Supremacy‘s new director carried on the foundations laid by Identity. Paul Greengrass was a relatively unknown British filmmaker when he took the reigns from Liman. Substituting hand held cameras for a previous Stedicam conceit, the new approach took Bourne into places the standard espionage movie would never dare investigate. There’s family life, the unnecessary destruction of same, the return of old foes and the discovery of heretofore unnoticeable new ones. It signals the end of one covert scheme and the uncovering of yet another. In between we get amazing fist fights, old school physical effects, and one of the most amazing and plausible car chases ever captured on film.
It is clear that the new infusion of vision invigorated the series. Damon is more alive than ever, his darker side clouding an already cracked interpersonal position. He’s lost everything, and with it, the will to tolerate such treatment. He is vengeance reborn, focus renewed on taking down the powers that perverted his life and stole his soul. Throughout the numerous square-offs, showdowns, and claustrophobic cat and mouse moments, we see a man coming undone, only to rebuild himself into a near robotic version of his programmed assassin self. When the results of this reconfiguration finally finish, heaven help those who get in his way.
That’s the premise for Ultimatum, the final head to head between our hero and his harried past. With Greengrass back for another go, and a plot that’s completely focused on bringing down the forces who formed this amoral spying machine, the film is nothing more than two hours of sly setup and potent payoff. Some have suggested that this is the best Bourne movie of the bunch, and they may be right. When viewed back to back, when seen as a psychological and emotional progression from cold to calm, passionate to powerless, Ultimatum becomes the fabulous finale the three part narrative has been hinting at. It’s to the productions credit that Tony Gilroy (with occasional help) stayed around to write all three movies. The consistency in tone and character he brings lends to the trilogy’s effectiveness.
The final (for now) Bourne starts up right where the last left off. A name - David Webb - has been tossed out there, and our trained killer has followed a complicated betrayal all the way to his origins at the CIA. In freaky flashbacks meant to start filling in the gaps, Greengrass shows us Bourne’s derivation. We see him tortured and brainwashed, created like a cog in a menacing and miscreant US government machine. Unlike the scenes in Supremacy where the character remembers his role in the assassination of a Russian leader, these moments are meant to finish Bourne’s portrait. They act as measures of the man, a lineage that he must suffer through and escape from if he is ever to have a life. Love has been left out of the series every since the opening of part two, but Julia Stiles returns as a determined desk jockey who wants to help our hero recover himself. It’s not a romance so much as a really clear friendship based on respect and human empathy.
The filmmakers even throw in an antagonistic turn, making Pamela Landy (a wonderful Joan Allen) into an ally for Bourne - a mother figure, if you will, for a boy who lost his entire family in a fog of calculated cold warring. With the return of a character everyone thought dead, and the arrival of yet another stuff shirt supervisor, we’re back to high tech tracing and continent crossing one-upmanship. There is an incredible sequence in Tangiers where Bourne travels across rooftops and through building windows, only to end up in a remarkably brutal dustup with another assassin. The hand to hand here is so compact, so intense in its imposed ferocity that it literally leaves one breathless.
So does a New York chase that rivals the Moscow version in scope and destruction. It’s important to note that, unlike other summer romps that relied on CGI to stage their practical stunts (Live Free or Die Hard, The Kingdom), Greengrass wanted real life action or nothing. It’s a throwback ideal, but one that plays perfectly into the Bourne franchise’s desire to deconstruct the past. It’s funny to see the latest James Bond - the daring Daniel Craig - pulling off many of the moves witnessed in Identity and Supremacy, yet when matched up against Ultimatum, Casino Royale pales in comparison. Granted, they are two birds of a slightly similar feather, but the idea that a recent upstart could compare favorably to - or God forbid surpass - the famed superspy would be heresy…until now.
The fact remains, however, that the Bourne films are one of the most satisfying collections of high octane thrills every brought to the big screen (and, thankfully, they lose little in the transfer to home vide). They celebrate smart cinema and explore the many fast-paced facets of film’s multilayered language. As detailed character studies, they are sensational. As examples of where espionage can go in a post-Cold War world, they are ideal. And let’s face it, any franchise that can turn Matt Damon from Northeast wholesomeness into international man of intrigue has to be doing something right.
In fact, there is much more to these densely packed films than can be discussed in a single feature or review. Indeed these fine films demand to be experience, to be savored for what they accomplish as well as what they avoid. In the grand scheme of cinema, James Cameron could have taken his ‘titanic’ spy spectacle all the way to the top. Luckily for us, Jason Bourne stepped in and grabbed the reigns. For sheer entertainment and excitement, nothing can beat The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. They are the new spy standard bearers and all future filmmakers need to take notice.