They’re not cult films at all, in fact they’re pretty squarely aimed at the summer blockbuster crowd, but they are worth writing about (and watching, if you’re a late holdout to the Bourne oeuvre), so let’s go for a stroll through the Bourne films.
Matt Damon’s had an interesting career. Early Oscar-winner for his “Good Will Hunting” script, my perception of him was a comedy guy who sort of lucked into this role, but he’s got a lower miss-rate than just about any similarly A-list actor I can think of. Since the millennium, the only real flops in his filmography are the “Ocean’s Eleven” sequels, and I don’t think it’s fair to blame him for them. Okay, I’m probably not going to watch “We Bought A Zoo” any time soon, but you get my drift, and he either ought to thank his agent or his own ability to elevate material.
Based on the novels by Robert Ludlum (perhaps the most charity-shop-available author of all time), the films start with Matt Damon being fished out of the Mediterranean Sea, suffering from amnesia…and two gunshot wounds. He finds the world’s tiniest flashlight embedded in his hip, which beams the location of a safety-deposit box onto the nearest wall; and it’s from this box, full of money, passports and guns, that he attempts to piece his memory and life back together. It’s obvious that he wasn’t a gardener before because he displays the sort of skills only a trained assassin would have – as well as being an incredible close-quarters fighter, he’s agile, able to quickly think his way out of even the toughest corners, avoid detection, is an amazing driver, and so on.
Purely at random, he meets Marie in the US Embassy in Zurich, and offers her $20,000 to drive him to Paris. Franka Potente was a brilliant choice as Marie, who feels like a complete person with a chaotic life (shown with the amount of junk she’s crammed into her tiny old Mini and her dialogue inside the Embassy). The two of them have great chemistry despite their very obviously different personalities, and this helps the first film a great deal. As their relationship deepens (and she figures he’s the best chance she has of avoiding getting shot), they travel through Europe trying to work out who Matt Damon actually is.
But this isn’t just a review of the first one! “The Bourne Identity” was directed by Doug Liman, best known by me as the director of “Swingers” and, up to that point, a low-budget indie director. He loved the original book (even though the final film jettisons most of the extraneous detail of it) and, by all accounts, it wasn’t much fun to make, with he and Damon fighting the studio to keep the low-key feel that makes it so interesting. Liman had had enough after just one, and was replaced by Paul Greengrass, the British filmmaker who started his career with the current affairs show “World In Action” (which remains, more than a decade after it stopped, perhaps the best documentary strand ever on British TV) who then moved onto fiction, but usually about real-world events and always with a very strong social conscience. It might be seen as a strange move, but when you see those two Bourne films directed by Greengrass, you realise that conscience is still front and centre (and that Damon is one of the best “progressives” in Hollywood). The Bourne films were pretty lucky to have two such great directors.
The very basic gist of these films is that Bourne attempts to find out who he is, while the CIA Black Ops people he used to work for throw their best agents at him in an attempt to stop him. Said like that, it sounds pretty simple, but that’s one thing these films couldn’t be accused of. The fights are brilliantly staged in a variety of locations, but often enclosed spaces – hotel rooms, side streets of north African slums – and feature incredible improvisation. Damon kills his assailants with pens, with rolled-up newspapers, with whatever happens to be lying around, but it never feels like a gimmick. Rather than showing us endless training scenes, because we know, by and large, as much as Damon knows, we see him remembering how to do impossible things while he’s being chased through the streets of Paris driving an old Mini, for example. It’s exciting and works very well with the other main thread of these films.
The CIA and their shadowy black ops baddies – Project Treadstone, Project Blackbriar – are unambiguously portrayed as forces for evil in the world. Killing politicians the USA doesn’t like, illegal “rendition” (kidnapping and torture, basically), illegal information gathering – these films don’t shy away from showing the absolute worst of what people do in the name of “freedom”. And it’s not just the immature “government is bad” that most action films would give you – it’s a complex view of how good people can be turned very bad, and the price you really have to pay to be free. Brian Cox and Albert Finney are magnificent bad guys, Cox especially (Finney’s accent gets in the way a little) – and by the way, how awesome is it to have Albert Finney as the ultimate bad guy in a multi-million dollar action movie franchise?
I can’t say enough good things about the Matt Damon trilogy of films. They’re tight, thrilling, intelligent, well-acted, and with one of the more convincing relationships in action cinema – maybe not quite as good as George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in “Out Of Sight”, but it’s close. They give us a hint of another well-formed relationship, with CIA analyst Julia Stiles (there’s even a subtle replay of the hair-cutting from the first film in the third, something for the close watchers to ponder).
What I haven’t mentioned so far is “The Bourne Legacy”. Robert Ludlum wrote three Bourne novels, and even though they didn’t follow the story extremely closely, they followed enough of it. Then Ludlum had the temerity to die in 2001, so really that should have been that for Bourne (also, that his story was really over and done with). But author Eric Van Lustbader carried on the Bourne series and has so far written ten or so novels of the further adventures of CIA spook turned linguistics professor “David Webb”. Those books feature the same character, but one gets the feeling that Greengrass and Damon were happy with the story ending where it did, and Damon was adamant he wouldn’t do another Bourne film without Greengrass. So the producers decided to make a few tweaks – ignoring all the “Bourne goes to civilian life and gets dragged back in” stuff from those further books and just having “Jason Bourne” refer to a whole series of different black ops assassins (a fairly clever move, I must admit). Jeremy Renner, another actor who started off in comedy but then discovered an aptitude for action movies, was drafted in to be the new Bourne and off we go.
Aaron Cross (Renner) doesn’t have the same problems as Bourne – he knows who he is, and knows the people he works for. He’s on a training mission in the remote wilderness, and while he’s there survives an attack which kills one of his fellow agents. This attack was triggered by the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum”, whose events are happening elsewhere in the world during this one. Cross is on “chems”, which increase the physical and mental prowess of the users, and the film’s events really spring from his attempts to keep his supply.
As the even shadowy-er “Project Outcome” tries to clean up the mess Bourne made to their illegal, immoral operations, Cross finds an ally in the shape of Rachel Weisz, one of the scientists who helps make his chems. As the Outcome agents are after them all, they need to keep moving, all the way to the climax in the Philippines.
I enjoyed this film the first time I watched it, but re-watching it for this review, I started noticing a few problems with it. Not so much with the film, which is a perfectly decent, exciting action film, but with what this film does to the overarching story. We see the bad guys successfully covering up what Bourne worked so hard and sacrificed so much for, which really cheapens what happened in those films. I can’t help but think there would be a compelling story to tell about the fallout from such a massive event that didn’t go “haha, the even more powerful people win, again”.
It’s also a great deal more open-ended than any of the three previous films. They all worked as stand-alone stories, by and large, but this feels like chapter 1 in a way the others didn’t – the protagonist and antagonist are barely aware of each others’ presence for most of the film, and then there’s no sense why or how they’re going to meet in a future installment. The world is worse at the end than it is at the beginning as well – this may well just be my spin on it, as it doesn’t seem to be a common complaint in other reviews. At best, you’re left with a slightly odd taste in the mouth. The end fight scene, a bit headachey, is also irrelevant – the state of Renner and Weisz is exactly the same at the beginning of it as it was at the end. What gives?
Anyway, I’d definitely recommend all four films. I’d say film 4 is a bit of a drop, quality-wise, and it looks like part 5, with a new director and writer, is going to drift even further from the things that made the Damon films great; but they’re rarely boring, and have a lot for viewers to chew on.
Rating: thumbs up