Trilogy Review: Bourne

An opportunity to rewatch and review one of my favourite film trilogies of all time? Sign me up!

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The Bourne Identity (2002)

I imagine a lot of people forget the more humble, stealthy experience that is the beginning of the Bourne story.

When a man is found afloat in the ocean he finds he has no memory of who he is. When a shadowy covert operation begins to send assassins after him and watch his every move, terrible truths are revealed as he is on the run.

Having enjoyed films like The Fugitive, The Bourne Identity was a natural progression for me, it is probably a massively underrated film especially since its own series got so bombastic. Identity is such a moody, quiet and real experience. Damon plays a very subtle character in Jason Bourne; a man who has no identity to define himself with, but has hard truths to find answers for. The film is not exposition heavy, even when it frequently bounces from our hero to the men hunting him, it maintains a strong sense of tension and mystery without ruining it with blatancy or over explaining everything. Something action movies do far too often.
Directed by Doug Liman (not Paul Greengrass, who would continue the series) and scored by John Powell, the film is drenched in a great atmosphere of tension and puzzle solving.

The characters too are compellingly human, everyone is performing extremely well here, Brian Cox, Chris Cooper and Franka Potente, Clive Owen is even briefly in this well cast film. No one feels out of place, unnecessary or poorly written.

The action sequences are great too. From what I remember of Greengrass’ follow-up Supremacy there was a lot of shaky cam, and I was surprised at the lack of shaky cam in this movie. Sequences are very well shot, giving kinetic weight yet not loosing the audience in the process (and this was after Gladiator, when everyone wanted to do shaky-cam!) There’s an awesome car chase too involving Bourne escaping in an old Mini Cooper, very memorable stuff.

All in all The Bourne Identity is a superb and solid action thriller that took everyone by surprise, propelling one of the biggest action/espionage franchises since Bond forward.

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The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Paul Greengrass takes over the series as director, and very much feels like he cut his teeth with this one.

Despite being freely off the grid and with the head of the insidious Treadstone project killed, Bourne believes the worst is over. But when a Russian assassin takes away the only thing left in Bourne’s life, he thinks Treadstone is after him once again. But the plot is even thicker than he can know…

Even perhaps a decade later, my opinion of The Bourne Supremacy has not changed in the slightest. I love this trilogy, I even have the steelbook edition, but Supremacy really doesn’t sit well with me and not just by comparison of its far superior (no pun intended) siblings.

I love me some consistency, and the trilogy delivers that in spades. John Powell returns with an electrifying twist on his original score for Bourne Identity, and even Moby’s Extreme Ways returns for the end credits, Matt Damon and Brian Cox reprise their roles very well. In fact I would say the latter steals the show, delivering a frail, cowardly yet sadly sympathetic antagonist, and his scenes with newcomer Joan Allen are probably the most effective for me.
The film still has that edgy atmosphere whenever Bourne is stalking around Europe, America and Russia in this globe-trotting sequel, the tension is still real.

Yet… the editing is atrocious!

I really mean it. 2004 must have been when shaky-cam became a thing because Supremacy’s action sequences are really, really bad. Not even restricted to the action sequences, even regular tracking shots and panning shots are wobbling all over the place. I appreciate some of it, to invoke kinetic action and uncontrolled rage (representing Bourne’s own survival instincts) but you have to dial it back.
All I tend to take away from this film is 1. the film’s main action set piece, a car chase around Moscow, is heavily shaky-cam, and 2. this is suffers from second installment syndrome.

To watch Supremacy alone is pointless. At one hour thirty-seven minutes it flies by, none of the returning characters are given time to re-establish themselves, new characters are barely touched on. Without the first film’s great pacing and establishing and the third films incredible payoff, Supremacy is just… noise.

There are moments of cleverness that I enjoy; the chase Bourne makes from Police that involves running across two train tracks, off a bridge, onto a boat only to double-back  back onto the bridge again from underneath? That was impressive. That and how Bourne takes control of the situation from underneath the organisation hunting him. It is a fantastic “you got owned” scene that does so much to empower our hero and validate every other characters’ fear of him.

Of course, I said earlier I love this trilogy. Supremacy is redeemed by its successor, and Supremacy is the glue that the series relies upon, take it out and it falls apart. But as a singular experience I really don’t think highly of it in cinematography terms.

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The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

The super spy is Bourne.

With nothing else to live for, Jason Bourne seeks the final answers to the fractured memories and ghost recollections about what was done to him.

The Bourne Ultimatum is a rare third act for a film series; it isn’t overblown, it doesn’t contrive or skew to “enhance” the story outside of its themes for a bigger showdown. This is an effective conclusion that not only ties up the loose ends that our hero has been suffering, but also maintains a fantastic consistency with its previous films.

Something very few third parts ever manage.

Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass returns to direct Matt Damon, and by 2007 the two men are well versed in what works and what doesn’t. Especially for the Bourne films, and they deliver a rollercoaster urban thrill ride of action.
Bouncing off the foundations of Bourne Supremacy, Ultimatum strikes it rich with its two leading ladies Julia Stiles and Joan Allen. Allen playing Pamela Landy, the only surviving official who has first hand knowledge of Bourne’s skills and the only one prepared to help the situation, does an excellent job filling the sympathetic gap left by Brian Cox and making a layered character who answers much of the franchise’s questions.
In the antagonist role, asides from the half-dozen different super agents sent after Bourne, is David Strathairn, who doesn’t rise too much farther than Chris Cooper did in Identity, but is a good fit in the role as a merciless official hunting down Bourne.

The role of a total schmuck who Bourne continuously runs rings around with spectacular fashion and incredible ease, more like. The film is as enjoyable and rewarding as it is thrilling and suspenseful!

We see Bourne in full super spy mode in this film, he is in control and cold as ice. There are pivotal scenes that show how Bourne has tried reconciliation, he’s tried to let go of what he’s done in the past but he cannot shake the memories that are resurfacing. What we get is a conclusion with Bourne on the warpath. An action movie through-and-through.
The film opens with a fantastic scenario in London; where Bourne via phone is navigating someone else through a crowd to not be seen by officials. That should be really hard to film, but Greengrass nails it; you know exactly what’s happening, the spaces involved and line of sight.
It is followed by the chase in Morocco, a chase and fight sequence that was so incredible that it influenced the Bond franchise for a decade at least, as well as other movies in the genre. Granted there’s more shaky-cam in the fight sequence again, but the steadier cinematography for the initial rooftop chase and incredible tension before that makes me go easier on it.

It is a tremendous movie and ties both the moodier Identity and the white-knuckled Supremacy together and actually builds on and improves them, delivering a hugely satisfying conclusion for Bourne in the process.

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If you like you can find the review I did some time ago for The Bourne Legacy, the rather deliberate cash-grab spin-off of the trilogy!

I honestly think this is one of my favourite trilogies, ever, up there with the likes of Back to the Future, Star Wars (originals) and Toy Story.

How a sequel to this fantastic experience (that is worth a marathon, if you haven’t already!) can live up to expectations, I don’t know. But at least the trilogy can stand alone.

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