JOHN OSTRANDER: Bourne To Run
Spoiler Alert: This week I’m discussing the three Jason Bourne movies and I may wind up revealing plot points, especially of the most recent film out, The Bourne Ultimatum. If you’re planning to see the movie, go see it first. More fun that way.
Just recently I got around to seeing The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the Jason Bourne series of films starring Matt Damon. All are supposedly based on novels by the late Robert Ludlum – at least, to the degree that the James Bond films were based on the Ian Fleming novels, which meant they basically used the title and one or two elements, if that.
Which is one of its problems for the Ludlum fans. From what I understand, they also don’t like Matt Damon, saying that he’s too young or not right. While I haven’t read the Bourne novels, I have read one or two other Ludlum books and enjoyed them well enough. And I do have sympathy for their position. I complained about the SciFi Network’s version of The Dresden Files because they had so little to do with the actual series of books, which are wonderful. The TV series wasn’t. I sometimes wonder why H’weird buys up properties and then makes wholesale changes in them to the point that they have very little to do with the original concept. The current Flash Gordon series which both I and ComicMix EIC Mike Gold loathe (Mike, you lasted an episode more than I did) is a case in point.
All that said – I’m a big fan of the Bourne movies and more so after the third. I stumbled on the three by accident. (For the record, the three films are The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.) I happened to come across the Supremacy while I was channel surfing one evening, coming in after it started and found myself hooked. When the movie was on again, the lovely and talented Mary joined me and was also drawn in. We kept on missing the opening and it took about three viewings before we finally saw the film all the way through. We then got a hold of the first film and now have the first two on DVD. Supremacy, in particular, has become one of our favorite films.
A quick general summary is in order. Jason Bourne is an amnesiac Black Ops agent working for a super-secret program within the CIA called The Treadstone Project. He’s created to be a human weapon, a master assassin, with mad skills and an ability to improvise. When The Bourne Identity begins, the man known as Jason Bourne is hauled out of the sea by some Mediterranean fishermen. He’s been shot and he has amnesia. Numbers tattooed on his hip turn out to be a Swiss banking account. In a safety deposit box he finds passports and lots of money.
He’s also being stalked by other assassins. The viewer has no more idea than Bourne as to what is going on and we accompany him as he tries to figure it all out. Along the way he involves a beautiful young woman, Marie (played by Franka Potente), who then becomes trapped in Bourne’s world and then becomes his ally and ultimately his lover. Other major characters include the head of Treadstone, Alexander Conklin (played by the always redoubtable Chris Cooper), Ward Abbot (played by Brian Cox) who is Cooper’s superior, and Nicky (Julia Styles) who is the “handler” for the Treadstone agents. By the end of the movie, Bourne and Marie have escaped, Treadstone is closed down, and Ward Abbot has shot and killed Conklin.
The second movie, The Bourne Supremacy, introduces the really incredible Joan Allen as a CIA section chief, Pamela Landry. Jason Bourne gets framed for a botched CIA operation Landry was running. An assassin, going for Bourne as part of that scheme, kills Marie instead. Bourne, who had been living in retirement in the far reaches of the world, goes after those responsible. Julia Styles (Nicky) and Brian Cox (Ward Abbott) both return. Cox’s character is an especially nasty bit of work. As the ad tagline went, “They should have left him alone.”
The director on the first movie was Doug Liman; the director for the past two movies has been Paul Greengrass. Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay on the first two films, (along with William Black Herron on Identity) and provided the story and co-wrote the most recent film along with Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi. John Powell links all three with terrific soundtracks. Moby’s Extreme Ways becomes the signature song for the films.
The Bourne Supremacy may be the most mournful, sad, fast action high-energy spy thrillers ever made. All three films are linked by Bourne’s attempt to recover his memories, recover himself, to become human again and, very close to the start of this film, he loses the woman he loves, the person who is helping him piece his life together once more. It’s shocking especially after you’ve seen the first film – this was the romantic lead. Killing the romantic lead shouldn’t happen. Here it does and it informs the rest of the this film and Ultimatum.
There is an underlying ache and sorrow in Bourne, capped by his apology to the daughter of his first two victims at the end of Supremacy. He isn’t, and shouldn’t, be forgiven. He thought he was doing his job, his duty. He now understands the pain and the loss when someone you love is ripped away from you.
I’m a fan of Matt Damon’s work. Not everything. I think he was miscast in The Good Shepherd, a film that seemed to me to try to match up John Le Carré and the Godfather films. It sounds like something that could work but, in this case, it didn’t. Not for me. As an actor, Damon brings both intelligence and intensity to what he does and never more so than as Jason Bourne. Wisely, in the last two films, they give him actually less to say although everyone else in the film is focused on where he is and what he is doing. We aren’t admitted to what Bourne is thinking or feeling much by words – mostly by what he does. Damon shows us the character in lightning flashes; we come to know him and identify with him.
One of the things I really love about the Bourne character is his ability to improvise. He thinks while he moves. The character’s intelligence is part of what makes him deadly – as much or more so than his skills. He plans and makes certain he knows ways in and out of the places that he’s going. He has fall-back plans and those plans have fall-back plans and, when all else fails, he works with what he has and adapts. It makes the character plausible, unpredictable, exciting, and dangerous.
Paul Greenglass, who seems ensconced now as the series director, makes the films edgy, almost to the point of being difficult to watch. Real quick cuts, jumpy camera work, often for extended periods of time – usually this stuff makes me twitchy but Greenglass really makes it work. These are paranoid films; not just Bourne is paranoid but so is the CIA for which he worked.
The newest film, The Bourne Ultimatum, does some really interesting narrative tricks. For me, one of the most interesting is that they take the final scene from the previous film and incorporate it into the body of this one in a way that makes us look at it completely differently. It also repeats elements from the previous two films that, in and of themselves might be a little too convenient but make enough sense and certainly brings the theme of the three movies together.
It also has some of the most intense action sequences and chases that I‘ve seen. It’s not just the stunts are imaginative and well done (they are) but there is a real involvement for the audience. Characters that we have come to care about are put at real risk and, because the storytellers killed Marie in the second installment, there is no guarantee that these characters will survive. You get a feeling of dread; that something is going to happen that you can’t stop.
When there are hand-to-hand fights, they are dirty, nasty, brutal, ugly affairs. Bourne is superb but he’s not invulnerable. The nastiest people, however, in all three films are invariably the ones who keep their hands “clean.”
Ultimately, the three films are about the search for identity and accepting responsibility for who you are and what you’ve done with your life. The moment Jason Bourne starts to question the morality of what he is and what he does, he loses himself. His memory is gone. Throughout the three films, he has to reconstruct those memories, what he has done, in order to confront who he was and what he has become. He has to reclaim himself to renounce the Bourne identity.
The last film ends roughly as the first one begins – with a body floating in the water. The circle becomes complete. Will there be another Bourne movie? Probably, given that the latest one has made a ton of money. Do we need another Bourne movie? I don’t – they’ve completed the story. If they continue, they have to find a new story to tell. If the same people are all involved in the next movie, I might see it. They’ve earned that much from me.
Do you NEED to see the other two films before seeing The Bourne Supremacy? Hard for me to say. Personally, I’d rent the first two since the payoffs in the third are so tied to seeing the other films. I’ll tell you this much – it’s hard also to imagine a better action film than The Bourne Ultimatum. Great cast, well written, sharp direction, great score. What more do you need?
Oh, right. Popcorn.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/.