The other day Milky confessed to me that he had not seen any of the Jason Bourne movies. We decided to rectify this situation with a trilogy marathon. If you haven’t seen the Bourne movies you might think Matt Damon would make a horrible action star, since at first glance he looks as tough as Tom Cruise (who’s only slightly taller than Peter Dinklage, and has less chutzpah) and had mostly done dramas to this point; sure he was the eponymous Private Ryan that needed Saving by Tom Hanks in WW2, but he didn’t seem grizzled like the soldiers sent to save him. Let me assure you, after watching the Bourne movies you’ll be nervous if you ever meet Damon and want his autograph, because he might kill you with a pen or a rolled-up magazine if you mock him like in Team America: World Police.
The Bourne Identity begins with a man found by a cargo ship at sea, floating unconscious, seen only due to a locator beacon. Was he a jet pilot who ejected? The ship’s doctor pulls two bullets out of his back and a metal capsule from his hip; when the man wakes he has amnesia, and finds nothing in the capsule but a number to a safe deposit box, which sends him on his mission to find out who he is. The box contains a dozen passports of different names, bricks of cash, and a pistol; one passport stirs his memories: Jason Bourne. He goes to the nearest Embassy to seek help. He finds out that he can speak several languages, and has deep instincts that cue him along. When he smells trouble at the embassy, he pays off a girl named Marie (Franka Potente, Run Lola Run) who’s also having passport trouble to drive him to Paris, where his papers lead him next. His passport is flagged, and after showing up at the embassy, the CIA wakes up back in Virginia, and goes balls-out to apprehend him.
His instincts disturb him greatly- he is very alert and when he walks in a room, he senses exits, targets, threats and means of escape; when the first interceptor shows up at one of his old apartments, he dispatches him with some difficulty, using only a ballpoint pen. His body feels like a marionette to him at first, reacting through pure instinct. Their battle is not the most exciting hand-to-hand fight in a movie, but it’s unique, and the series will keep this gritty, realistic flavor to its battles. Even now they are fresh and new, invigorating, and already influencing that king of all spies, James Bond, in Casino Royale.
Bourne slowly discovers that he is a trained assassin; that he went missing on his last mission, and is feared as a turncoat, loose cannon, or broken weapon; and of course, other assassins from the same program are now homing in on him. His last job was to take out an African leader, who is still alive, and they send “The Professor,” played perfectly by Clive Owen, as the cleaner. The movies eschew making these supermen look anything but normal; Owen is my favorite, simply a tall scruffy man with glasses in a sweater, who happens to be a crack shot with the sniper rifle he carries disassembled in his duffel. They have a fantastic duel with that rifle vs. a side-by-side hunter’s shotgun, and Owen manages to engender quite a bit of pathos in a role with little dialogue.
Bourne manages to track down the CIA’s temporary shop in Berlin where they are organizing the hits on him from, led by Conklin (Chris Cooper) and Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), who are desperately trying to avoid having their black ops program cause international fuss. When the bird comes home to roost, it’s explosive and a web of deceit becomes clear. The movie has a satisfying, open ending that stands on its own, but the movies work best as a series. Despite getting a new director next time, the backstory about the secret program of super-assassins stays coherent. Doug Liman (Swingers, Go) directed this one and despite not having an action pedigree, he proved his mettle.
The Bourne Supremacy begins with Jason and Maria trying to live quietly and be left alone; however, Jason’s fingerprints show up at a crime scene in Berlin, where CIA agents were seeking info on a political assassination that led to $20 million of Federal cash disappearing. Jason survives a hit, only to be sought by the CIA as a traitor while he tries to hunt down his new enemy, and the mole from the first film is still operating with impunity.
A new director is on board, Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bloody Sunday) whose prowess at taking sensitive subjects such as historic terrorist attacks and turning them into compelling docudramas works perfectly here. The CIA war room, led by Pam Landy (Joan Allen, The Contender, Death Race) gets a lot more screentime, and it’s just as compelling seeing them hunt Bourne down as it is watching him deflect their strikes, escape, and counter. She’s a straightlaced operative who gets thrown into the wake of the Treadstone Project when her own op goes sour with Bourne’s prints at the scene, but it becomes clear that the mole is setting up Bourne so he is either killed as a threat or takes out the mole’s enemies at the agency, or both.
Another favorite spy thriller, Ronin, is still one of the best when it comes to car chases, but the Bourne movies take Frankenheimer’s iconic races through tight European streets up a notch each time. In Identity, Bourne puts Maria’s classic Mini through the paces evading police; in Supremacy there’s a gutwrenching battle between a Moscow taxi and a Mercedes off-roader; and Ultimatum manages to up the ante one last time with an NYPD squad car tearing up the snowy streets with CIA Suburbans trying to crush it. What Greengrass brings to the stories is a directing style that focuses on the action and speaks volumes without expository dialogue. His “shaky cam” style has been copied everywhere since, to the nausea-inducing fights in Spider-man 3 to Cloverfield where it was an integral part of the story.
While the story is crammed with action and Bourne’s unique “MacGyver Bond” sensibilties, where any situation can be handled with the objects at hand plus a brain and body hardwired to avoid capture, it does manage to keep an emotional base. He kidnaps a logistics operative named Nicky (Julia Stiles, ) that he obviously has a forgotten past with; the story wisely avoids shoehorning in a romantic subplot, but we feel for his loss ofnot knowing what he even had. When it becomes clear that the original political assassination that started the mole’s thievery was actually Bourne’s first job, he gets to find out more about himself and what he was before he was rebuilt into a pure killer. And the wellspring of empathy that made him break from it leads to a touching finale, where he explains to the orphaned child of his targets that no, Mommy and Daddy didn’t murder-suicide. And it’s handled so well that there’s no smarminess, or Oprah-style redemption. “I’d want to know.” is all that needs to be said.
The Bourne Ultimatum puts Jason as the aggressor- he wanted to be left alone, and he tells Landy as such while he has her in rifle sights. Now the NSA is on the job, with a pro-active director named Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, “The Sopranos,” The Brother from Another Planet) looking to take out Bourne as a possible threat. This time an Echelon-like surveillance system on European phones catches the code word “Blackbriar,” which sets he NSA in motion to plug the leak on what is a more comprehensive black ops program than Treadstone ever was- it comprises rendition, removal, and surveillance in one neat, familiar package, and immediately Landy does not like Vosen’s pre-emptive and unquestioned use of it.
The very end of Supremacy teases us with Jason on American soil, and this perfect end to a neat trilogy pays it off completely. After a quick re-cap, we’re trotting the globe with Jason again, as he tracks down a reporter who’s been leaked stories about Blackbriar, and Bourne himself. There’s a gripping scene in a busy London train station as he tries to protect him from “24”-style surveillance and capture, as Vosen’s arm of the NSA can essentially spy, capture or kill first and get warrants later (if at all). From there he has to trace down the source of the leak with Nicky’s help, and head off another “asset” who is tasked with plugging the leak with lead. That leads to a tense motorbike chase in the hilly streets of Morocco, with a rooftop foot chase featuring stunning camerawork as Bourne leaps from one building to another through a window, with the cameraman seemingly right behind him.
Greengrass and the producers kept the CG out of these movies and relied on real stunts, and the realism shows through and through. Sure, Bourne might get up from a car crash that should have jumbled his innards, but we expect that in Hollywood; at least he’ll be hobbling away for the rest of the movie. The New York car chase has to be unique- this is the grid of Manhattan, without the curvy alleyways of old Europe or the wide tunnels of Moscow- and the location is used to full effect. The streets are jammed with cars, every parking spot taken, jaywalkers and pedestrians everywhere. It’s exciting every time I watch it, even though the scripted scene where he uses a car’s cruise control to send it hurtling down the street like a missile never made it to the final cut.
As Bourne hurtles toward his beginnings, the story of the assassin with the broken brain, who wants nothing but to be a real boy, things could go pear-shaped if they played it wrong. But Greengrass deftly weaves Bourne’s quest to ferret out his origins and the story of true CIa patriots bringing shady, illegal practices to light. The political implications are clear without being spoonfed, or delivered with a hammer. Jason has to confront not only his maker, but the person he was before he was Bourne; as it winds down and he faces one more perfect assassin, he recalls the Professor’s dying words: “Look at us. Look what they make you give.” It circles back to the best scene of the first movie, and book-ends the story of Jason Bourne perfectly.
The trilogy is not perfect; the ending to the first film’s action finale is a bit silly, and both of Greengrass’s entries lack the chemistry that Damon and Potente had together, supplanting it with talented ensemble casts. However, the three movies work together as more than the sum of their parts, and I have reservations about the Untitled Jason Bourne Project that Damon and Greengrass have planned. While wikipedia assures me that the 2 sequels deviated so far from Robert Ludlum’s source material that there’s no worry that the fourth can’t return to the well, it’s rare that we get a resolution to a story over 3 films that are all so good. The second movie in a trilogy can be great, like Empire Strikes Back, or confusing crap, like The Matrix Reloaded; here it manages to be the logical progression, and compelling in its own right. And the third wraps things up so well that a fourth entry may have nowhere to go. We’ll have to see.
Damon & Greengrass are also trying their hand at a thriller based on real events, with Green Zone, based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book about living in Bagdad. I went in expecting to hate United 93 and think it is the best film about 9/11, so I will go see Green Zone blind. Greengrass has proven he can handle tricky subjects, and even make a compelling movie, when you already know the unhappy ending.