Doug Liman (1) and Paul Greengrass (2,3,4) direct Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Joan Allen, Karl Urban, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent Cassel in this film series following an amnesiac CIA assassin crossing the globe to rebuild his memory and avoid the authorities.
Wednesday was Jason Bourne Day. One of cinema’s finest franchises and hero characters returned to us after almost a decade’s rest (and yes… I know about Legacy / Renner and I don’t actually think it’s all that bad… but that is not what Jason Bourne Day is about). I frantically went through several large boxes of just moved DVDs before breakfast, actually growing quite worried the original trilogy had been lost in transit. A massive wave of relief washed over me when I found them in the very final box, in the deepest darkest corner. I now know exactly how those analyst extras at Langley feel. That Jason Bourne is frustrating to track down.
The Bourne Identity is just a perfect piece of entertainment. It is an espionage thriller with outstanding action… sure, sure. But it shares more in its DNA with The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes or Romancing the Stone than it does with Bond. Essentially it’s a romance on wheels… With outstanding action. Damon’s Bourne, in this standalone work, is more Boy Scout – polite, efficient, skilled. There’s a charming dorkiness to his shock at himself when he efficiently takes down an embassy or cleans a room of fingerprints while his lover sleeps. An anger and confusion bubbles away in Damon’s first take, he seem more on the brink by not having answers than when he does when he gets them. Potente makes an ideal foil for him, scatty when he is focussed, emotional when he is detached, vulnerable when he is invincible.
Their chemistry is great and that chalk and cheese dynamic expose bigger differences in the two good looking kids on the run. Marie is a drifter, rarely paying her taxes or having a fixed abode or even country, a hedonist. Bourne is military trained (and oh my how convincingly so, given Damon’s previous work in indie dramas and comedies) and as revealed in later films a true patriot – not just a killing machine but a willing part of the right wing system. In fact, when we visit his Paris home, it is sparse but expensively furnished, there is a surprising abundance of quality cooking utensils (The Jason Bourne Cookbook, anyone?) suggesting that Bourne has his own life he is abandoning by not completing his mission and coding in… unless the CIA just kit these homes out of a high-end catalogue.
The ending this version reaches is a happy one where Marie is settled with her own coastal moped rental cafe and Bourne, now the drifter, turning up on her door. The utopia Liman imagines for them is quite the middle class, libertarian compromise- small business owners in paradise with no one to report to and no reason to keep moving. A rare moment of happiness in the series entire. And then Moby’s Extreme Ways strikes up confirming the great time you’ve had. “Extreme ways are back again, Extreme places I didn’t know, I broke everything new again, Everything that I’d owned, I threw it out the windows…” I cannot think of a pop song and movie series that seem so entwined in their co-existence with each other.
The dirty basements and dirty noise of a night club or rave is where Jason would party if he ever got the chance. In the earlier films, Bourne does have a winning feeling of a younger and fresher gap year Bond. Whereas 007 would receive a mission and then follow it via a series of luxury hotels until a global threat is neutralised, Bourne is just trying to survive day to day, stay off the grid and maybe learn something about himself at each new destination. Whereas as Bond or Ethan Hunt have a whole array science fiction gadgets at their disposal, Bourne improvises and subsists on what he acquires, whether that be a cheap Nokia (often), a biro, a corpse, a magazine, a hardback book or a chair leg. And whereas Bond or Hunt are fantasy action figures whose abilities and emotions come straight out of a comic book (not a criticism given the needs of their own stories), Bourne reacts and emotes with a greater level of verisimilitude. He exists in a real world, one of cold, shock and pain. Even when doing the impossible Bourne is a believable human being – his hands shake, his bones shiver, there even is a tear in his eye at points.
This effort towards relatability is what makes Liman’s action so engaging. You feel bullets tears, a Mini rattle and shake as it is driven down stone steps, ulnas break, oxygen leaving the lungs as throttled. Greengrass would take this method of putting-the-audience-as-tightly-through-the-wringer-as-the-hero-is up to the next level but it was Liman’s inventive flair for finding the grit in the fantastic, the physics of the astounding that sets the series up right. A full English breakfast of great storytelling and invention that powers the future movies despite the different chef and ingredients later introduced. With its incredible wintry Paris car chase, the cat and mouse stalking of Clive Owen’s asset in a desiccated cornfield and that final jaw dropping stunt in the safe house stairwell, a new bar for set pieces was raised and we didn’t even need a nuke or a laser satellite or WWIII to be the stakes.
That good feeling doesn’t last long however. When we return to Jason and Marie, a couple of years down the line in Goa, the super weapon is wracked with impenetrable memories, night terrors and guilt. And then Treadstone (in the shape of Karl Urban’s brutally efficient FSB agent) turns up and we get the first of three early shock deaths, a trademark of the series going forward. In terms of scrubbing out a happy ending to keep the franchise chugging along you’d think fans would be up in arms at Marie’s death, like Newt and Hicks’ callous but essential offing at the start of Alien3 split followers of that series right down the middle. Yet after the sucker punch, that real emotion unique to Bourne kicks in, her absence is handled sensitively and we see a never resolved shift in Jason. The Boy Scout is dead and he finally understands the human cost of the wetwork he did, the grief it causes.
Interestingly this is the only first-act killing that motivates Bourne into revenge mode (Landy: The objectives and targets always came from us. Who’s giving them to him now? Nicky: Scary version? He is.) and even then he would still been caught up in this narrative if Marie survived, as Treadstone always intended to frame him, Marie was mere collateral damage. These early death are less plot catalysts and more fair warning to the audience of the narrow margin that Bourne operates in when he takes on the system. The gaps he dives through and punishment he takes cannot be endured by hangers-on or even those closest to him. To do what Bourne does, you have to have his training and programming and fitness. Marie’s death and the subsequent copycat ones in Ultimatum and Jason Bourne are a readjustment of the stakes after Liman’s upbeat conclusion. Greengrass’ interpretation of Bourne’s world is unavoidably deadly and uncaring, you need to be Treadstone to beat Treadstone.
Greengrass’ successes in taking reigns and being long term manager of the series are at their most apparent in Supremacy. He merely tweaks Liman’s style of on location action by getting the camera right into it. The Moscow car chase has to be one of the most bruising and exhausting set pieces ever filmed, and all his low octane, high pressure sequences becomes more confidently sustained under his stewardship. Chases last an excitingly lengthy 15 minutes plus, when the net closes around Bourne there is never a simple exit, when hand to hand combat breaks out it is fought desperately to the death.
Greengrass is fascinated with surveillance culture and technology. Whereas as Julia Stiles’ Nicky Parsons is using Word to create wanted posters in Identity, from here on out we get the feeling of what the CIA might genuinely deploy in terms of resources and manpower to neutralise a threat. The stakes increase with each instalment as surveillance tech dominates and Bourne makes for an interesting anachronism as one of the few people his age without a Facebook or Twitter account. (Although this is less to do with him not wanting to get flagged by the NSA for Instagramming his meals, more to do with the fact when he started life on the run mobile phones were only able to make mere calls and the internet was still in its infancy to the public.) The series works as an interesting artefact, visually marking our stampede into the digital age like no other.
Finally Greengrass embraces real world geopolitic in his thrillers. Whereas as Identity had a vague fictional African dictator that could have appeared in any film since 1960, the villians in the later episode are more conceptual – oil rights and lost funds, state torture and behavioural modification, digital privacy and malware. It doesn’t always make for the most fruitful plots but Greengrass’ films appear on point with our times rather than unfashionably playing catch up.
Supremacy ends on two interesting codas, both of which had potential but were fumbled in the most recent films. The first has Bourne visit a young lady orphaned by one of his assassinations. He makes his peace and stumbles away (not sure what value it was to her to have a half dead killing machine appear in her living room… Something to do with knowing and facing the truth being of upmost importance… The franchise’s core message?) This could easily set a template up for Bourne’s motivation in future episodes, where he could resolve the wrongs he did when he was a CIA puppet. A route ignored, and a shame as him limping away into an urban jungle like Bruce Banner is one of the definitive images of the series. The second, ending Supremacy on an incongruous upbeat note, has Bourne call the CIA and let them know he’s back on home turf. Then he disappears into the street crowd of an NY summer. A fun little tease that Greengrass choose to rewind the clock at the start of Ultimatum on, so we only spend the last act stateside, so a promise essentially undelivered on.
Now Ultimatum is a very good action flick, set in a world we already love but it is also the first entry where the A* quality drops. Again there are two fantastically sustained sequences (Bourne trying to guide a journalist from grab teams and CCTV cameras in Waterloo station, and an epically prolonged chase through Tangiers that delivers on all the brutal close quarter combat, vehicle stunts and that stalking, in the mix camera work the franchise made its own) but as a whole it feels unnecessary. Bourne tries to resolves his bad memories of the Black Briar / Treadstone training programme (I’m pretty sure it is implied by Brian Cox’s character they are the same project just rebranded – however outside of Identity it is never made clear who is a genuine graduate of the killer factory). The journey to get back into NY feels superfluous, we could have got there without seeing it and be none the dumber. Yet what happens in NY is nowhere near as exciting as what comes before in Berlin, Waterloo and Tangiers. The upshot is David Webb himself choose to be the mindless killer they made him, but by the same token he has now rejected it. There’s also a bit of redacting to his and low level CIA bad penny Nicky Parson’s backstory. They had a forgotten love affair it would seem. Aside from framing those brilliant set pieces it all works out a bit rote. We end on conversations rather than resolutions (let alone some top end bang bang) and the final frames echo how we met Bourne in 2002, left for dead, afloat in the water. The narrative “tied off” to use CIA speak.
So 9 years dominated by Greengrass and Damon explicitly stating the trilogy was over as they had no story left to tell and now we get this week’s Jason Bourne. They were not lying… as the latest entry exacerbates the ricketiness of Ultimatum’s non-essential story. Here Bourne pops up on the grid again while the CIA track Nicky (she’s since learnt hacking and self defence but not how to buy a hoodie when she is apparently the only blonde person in Greece). She suggests his father’s terrorist death (news to us) was highly suspect meaning his choice to join Treadstone might not have been as free as was previously revealed. He’s uncovering new memories that tally. So we are sadly sticking to the Bourne remembers something, triggers an alarm at Langley and all hell breaks loose format again with a bonus Harry Potter / Luke Skywalker chosen one narrative jerry-rigged on for… well, reasons. Considering the amount of chaos and carnage that takes place whenever Bourne does decide to use a passport they actually have quite a strong case for trying to contain him.
But that chaos and carnage does still make this fourth plate at the bare knuckle buffet worthwhile. Damon and Stiles racing through Greece in full austerity riot mode, before the city is completely locked down, matches anything the series previously gripped us with. You feel the jaws of the bear trap snapping shut as they dodge water canons and Molotov cocktails. The closing Las Vegas SWAT van chase is equally impressive – bringing a tangible spectacle in a summer of wispy CGI FX. You cannot fault the series’ adherence to keeping it real and in these kinetic moments Jason Bourne more than justifies its existence. Not being quite the stamp of the original trilogy, and frustratingly uninspired in its dusty template, but that still leaves us with some unusually masterful talent at the hotdog and nacho stand this blockbuster season. Who can blame them for giving us what we wanted?
And here’s an evolution: Vincent Cassel’s nameless asset has to be the most convincing villian they have set against Bourne. Whereas nearly all previous assassins activated have been lucky to survive their one scene, Cassel not only goes the distance but seems to be viciously troubled. You know that if Bourne loses an inch to him, it shan’t be a quick and easy death. He might even be an alternative look at what Bourne may have become if he did execute Wombosi in front of his child and carry on down into the Black Briar. Not all villians are quite as strong though, Tommy Lee Jones takes on the pointing at the screen and barking orders Deputy Director role previously lived in by many another Best Supporting Ocsar winner adequately but his wrinkly face makes him seem like some distractingly weird Tommy Lee Jones hermit crab. Like a Tommy Lee Jones living inside another Tommy Lee Jones.
Perhaps the one area where Jason Bourne feels initially fresh is Alicia Vikander’s digital security expert. The only new character Bourne forms an attachment with and also the only one whose motivations are not black and white. I was so unsure about what was powering her deviations from protocol that wild theories were forming in my head. We are all of sudden meeting Webb Senior in flashback, so could she be a sibling of Bourne’s? Is she maybe a mole for the Anonymous style hackers we find ourselves caught up with? So when she finally is revealed to be… *** SPOLIERS*** a mere Young Turk looking to take over Tommy Lee’s post with the most elaborate and unlikely power grab ever, using dicey game theory that the mayhem of Bourne turning up on the CIA’s doorstep after a decade will let her get away with murder! *** SPOILERS OVER*** you can’t be help but disappointed about how both run of mill yet also ridiculous it all is.
Bourne’s relationship with women define him throughout the series, the men are deadly brainwashed zombies or untrustworthy bureaucrats (fishermen excluded). Marie signified a new life, even a chance at some abandoned humanity. Pamela Landy became someone in authority he could trust from a distance (please bring Joan Allen back for the sequel, especially, if as tantalisingly suggested, Bourne is coming in from the cold). Nicky… well just some consistency in his life or maybe a chance not to repeat the mistakes he did at putting Marie at risk… Listen, my theory falls apart at Nicky. She violently changes from film to film; Intern / Victim / Liar who pretends her so called night with Bourne puts her on anyway a par with lovely German Marie / rubbish version of Bourne on the run. Let’s not look at Nicky too deeply for she is the series’ most interchangeable and weakest link, an afterthought they kept bringing back for no real purpose but continuity. Vikander’s Heather Lee makes it to the end this time and seems set up to return for JB2, their alliance uneasy as Bourne knows the skeletons in her browsing history, knows she’s just as untrustworthy as a Conklin, an Abbott or a Vosen. If there is one way David Webb has developed over the series he has finally learnt to trust no one, not even a pretty young face. The millennials are just as corrupt as the baby boomers. Only bullet scarred and greying Generation X can be trusted – HA!
And Bourne has developed over 15 years. The new film opens with flashbacks of all his previous dark deeds, but it has been edited from quite a few pre-existing scenes where Bourne actually choose not to kill. He may have had the drop on Wombosi, Landy, Abbott and Paz in the original trilogy but each time he chooses not to submit to his Treadstone programming. His humanity beats Treadstone. It is fascinating watching Identity seeing how often Damon doesn’t pick up or takes out of play the gun. Three more movies though and his curious but hopeful amnesiac has been ground away by Marie’s death, by the years on the run, by the constant betrayals, by the shocking memories of the killer he chose to be before we fish him out of the Med that fateful night. And the Bourne we rediscover now is near wordless, stripped topless and fighting, literally, to stave off any further revelations. He is not interested in the truth anymore. It has flayed him of all he was, his search for it has reprogrammed him into a new machine. One who can relate or trust no one, one who doggedly tracks down answers he no longer wants to hear, no longer knows what to do with once he has them. Damon embodies a deadly man, not quite yet out of control with a physically impressive acting return, real star power inconceivable back in 2001 when he seemed miscast but then knocked it out of the park. Even if the continued adventures are diluting themselves he keeps the spirit of the endeavour going admirably.