Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Bourne Series: 2002-2016

The Bourne series is one of those film series that, despite being massively popular, I was never terribly well-versed in. I had seen two of the original trilogy, but found them mostly forgettable. I also watched The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner, on an airplane. Like the other films, it left little impression on me. Despite my tepid reactions, the new Jason Bourne trailers stoked a desire to go back and give them another go. And here's how it went:

The Bourne Identity (2002)

Director: Doug Liman

On seeing this one again, it is not difficult to see why it hasn't stuck with me. Although a very competent movie in terms of acting, pace, visuals, action, and suspense, The Bourne Identity comes off as oddly shallow.

The basic story follows Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a young man who is found unconscious and fished out of the water off the Mediterranean coast, but who has no recollection of who is when revived. Following a few sparse clues left on his person, he eventually learns that he is an elite, lethally trained assassin whose most recent mission went awry. Just as he begins to learn these things, his superiors in the U.S. government send similar assassins after him, to ensure his silence.

And this pretty much sums it all up. Yes, there is a woman involved - Marie (Franka Potente), who gets swept along with Bourne's desperate attempt to learn his identity and evade his pursuers. But while Marie's presence does offer a bit of levity, the romance which develops between her and Bourne feels rather forced and almost superfluous. There is nothing to suggest what, exactly, she sees in Bourne, aside from perhaps a primal attraction to dangerous, confused men.

For its lack of depth, the movie is still fairly satisfying, as far as action/suspense movies go. The revelations about Bourne's past are just intriguing enough, and the shootouts and hand-to-hand fight scenes are well executed. The resolution is standard Hollywood fare, but does lend a solid sense of closure to this initial movie in the series. I don't need to watch this one again, but I enjoyed this re-viewing well enough.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Director: Paul Greengrass

An overall improvement upon the solid movie that was Identity, though one that I don't enjoy as much as dedicated fans of the Bourne film series.

This movie picks up roughly two years after the original ends - Jason Bourne has eluded detection and is living in an Indian town with Marie, the German woman who got caught up with Bourne's manic game of cat-and-mouse and fell in love with the amnesiac assassin. Bourne is still extremely wary of being found, as he should be. The ruthless politician who killed his superior is still after him, hoping to eliminate Bourne as a living piece of incriminating evidence. To this end, he helps frame Bourne and lets loose a very dangerous Russian assassin to kill him. Instead, the assassin kills Marie, sending Bourne back into action to learn who is responsible and exact revenge upon them.

As an overall movie, Supremacy is better than Identity. While is does rely mostly on action and suspense for its entertainment value, there is more depth to the tale. The espionage elements are more intricate, and the character studies run deeper than the first film. A driving force to the story is Bourne's first assassination - that of an honorable, progressive Russian politician and his wife - which Bourne does not initially remember committing. In a way that the first film never truly explored, this element reminds us that Bourne has committed some horrendous acts in the past, implying questions about who he was before he was molded into a lethal tool of the U.S. government. This also leads directly to the unraveling of the plot to frame him, which is constructed and spun out very well for a spy thriller.

If you can't tell, that is indeed a rolled-up magazine which
Bourne is using in this intense fight. If you're hyper-attentive
(or maybe on Aderol), you might just be able to keep up with
some of the clever uses of environmental objects during these
disorienting combat sequences.
My issue with this movie (which I suspect I will have with subsequent entries) is director Paul Greengrass's approach to filming action sequences. He is one of the best-known proponents of the "shaky cam" technique, by which many scenes, especially action scenes, are shot with the camera extremely close to the actors during hand-to-hand fighting scenes or any fast-moving objects, such as in car chases. This technique also relies heavily on lightning-quick cuts, so that a shot is rarely sustained for more than two or three seconds. I know that many fans love this kind of filming, as it lends a certain sense of intimacy and intensity to the action. For my part, though, I find this style highly annoying and often simply difficult to watch. I am no great fan of pure action movies, but I greatly appreciate the skill that a sustained, single-shot action sequence commands. To use a recent example, the movie John Wick does an excellent job of this, with many long action scenes during which the intensity increases with every second that passes without a film cut. Paul Greengrass takes a very different approach, and I simply do not enjoy it.

It's not hard to see why Supremacy jumped the Bourne series from a good single film to a "franchise". It is one of the very best movies in the genre, and Greengrass's action directing has garnered a ton of fans. Though I'm hardly one of them, it is easy to see where its popularity comes from.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Director: Paul Greengrass

Because this movie is on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working through, I did a full review of it here. It is in keeping with Greengrass's first Bourne movie.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Director: Tony Gilroy

After director Paul Greengrass and star actor Matt Damon put the lid on the original Bourne trilogy, I suppose that movie producers simply couldn't let a blockbuster franchise lay at rest. Hence, they decided to bring viewers back into the world of Jason Bourne, albeit without the titular assassin-on-the-run. The result is a slightly messy tale that didn't quite maximize its potential.

In an unusual move for a highly successful film series, several creators involved with the original trilogy decided to follow a narrative tangent with Legacy. It focuses on Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a black ops assassin who has undergone training and physical enhancements similar to Jason Bourne, though in a program known as Outcome - a splinter program of the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs created by the C.I.A. and the forces behind Jason Bourne's creation. When Bourne blows the lid off of Treadstone and all related, shadowy doings of those who controlled him, the handlers of the Outcome program decide to start wiping out evidence of its existence. Namely, they start assassinating their own assassins. Aaron Cross manages to narrowly avoid execution, and then he goes looking for medicine necessary to keep him alive. This brings him to Doctor Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a biochemist who worked at an Outcome lab where Cross and other assassins would receive medical attention. The two find themselves on the run from C.I.A. teams associated with Outcome who want them both dead in order to keep their secrets safe.

The movie has several merits going for it. The basic story is a decent one that uses the pre-existing elements of the Bourne universe well. The acting is all top-notch. The cinematography is solid, and there are several arresting shots in the movie. There are even some action sequences that show some nice creativity and execution (easier for me to like, anyway, since I am not a fan of the shaky cam technique utilized by Paul Greengrass).

Still, there are a few things which keep the movie from really standing out among suspenseful espionage movies. The primary one is that the movie does not stand on its own at all. Anyone who hasn't seen the first three movies will be completely lost, especially during the first 30 minutes of Legacy. The story throws you right into events which are taking place concurrently with events detailed in The Bourne Ultimatum, without so much as a handy little recap of who Bourne is, or how those in the C.I.A. are tied to him. The writers clearly assumed that anyone watching the movie already knew this. If you didn't, then the motivations behind the opening attacks and the tension between people will be a complete mystery that is never clearly answered in Legacy. This lack of clarity continues throughout the movie, making the plot a somewhat slippery thing which is difficult to hold onto. The tale ultimately rests on the very basic device of pure survival to carry it through. What is a fairly complex story of high-level intelligence agency machinations is ultimately reduced to a cat-and-mouse game on the ground.

Renner and Weisz - two solid actors who do good work, but
with a somewhat tepid script and plot. 
Another problem which lends to the inevitable simplification of an otherwise intricate plot is that we never feel much investment in the C.I.A. being taken to task. In the previous films, it was fairly clear who the self-interested, heartless individuals were, offering us the satisfaction of Bourne finding them and laying them low. In Legacy, though, Cross never really learns exactly who is after him, and so is never able to pursue them. In a way, this is not unlike the end of the very first film, The Bourne Identity, which makes me wonder if Legacy was meant to be the first of a different Bourne series (though, confusingly, not including anyone with the name Bourne). Whatever the case, the film doesn't offer much satisfaction beyond Cross and Shearing avoiding death several times and escaping at the end.

Escaping death can actually be a satisfying ending, if the characters who escape are engaging enough. I didn't find this to be the case with Legacy. Again, this had nothing to do with the actors. All of them, and especially Renner and Weisz, did absolutely everything they could with what they had in terms of a script. But the story never gives us enough on the characters to develop more than a superficial notion that they are decent people. We are almost asked to take it for granted that we should be pulling for Cross and Shearing. On top of this, the two seem to develop some odd sort of bond from out of nowhere, at times gazing into each other's eyes and sharing a few gentle hand caresses. While not quite as clumsy as the relationship between Bourne and Marie in Identity, this semi-romance feels forced.

Legacy is by no means a bad movie, which is why it is a curious watch. If one is not looking at it with an overly critical eye, they will probably enjoy it quite a bit. I myself had to really think about why the movie was not grabbing me as much as it could have, since it didn't seem to be making any crucial mistakes. And that is the conclusion I came to - the movie avoids any critical errors and does several things very well, but it fails with several of the smaller things that really lend to good movies. The movie likely wouldn't have been a major hit all by itself, but it certainly didn't help that it was the follow-up to two extremely successful and well-received movies.

What of Jason Bourne?

I actually haven't seen the most recent movie, in which Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass return to the title character. I figure I'll do a stand-alone post once I get to it. Reviews were lukewarm, as was the public's response, and it sounds like it is no different from the previous Greengrass Bourne movies. In short, I don't expect that I'll like it much. Still, I'll try to go in with an open mind and see if it surprises me.