The Bourne Identity
Doug Liman’s scarred take on the James Bond myth isn’t a work that deserves superlatives, but then again, it isn’t really beckoning for them either. This is a trim, merciless thriller devoid of the blockbuster hypertrophy that was rapidly kicking the James Bond pictures into an early grave circa 2002, and it is relatively content to be just plain fine and nothing more. With a muted, sometimes monochromatic palette of bleak, unforgiving grays and frigid whites, Identity is straight-laced and admirably buttoned-up; even its sometimes awkward tonal swivels suggest a post-traumatic mind flickering with memories of its past and awkwardly swerving between new identities in a mad dash to figure out what it wants to be in the present.
Refreshingly free of clutter, this relatively lean anti-blockbuster resists the urge to turn the spy theme into a catalyst for histrionics, twists, and over-baked world-spanning intrigue; instead of a narrative pile-on, Liman’s cunning, crafty adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels is a naked pile-driver, crisp and mercenary in its systematic dispatching of businesslike genre thrills more-or-less unadorned in their from-the-gut resiliency. An act of ice-cold identity negotiation, the film’s version of spying is a sort of inverted act of recreating one’s own past self through analysis and exploration as Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne struggles to infuse dimension into the fractured slivers of memory left over from the remnants of his days as a trained assassin.
The film’s most fascinating filigrees, though, are attempts to rupture the simpleminded straight thrust of genre cinema, inducing a fever of erotic Euro-school sensuality when Bourne absconds from society with Franka Potente’s Maria and the film’s idiosyncrasies flicker with a romantic, even sexualized sense of loss. Admittedly, although it is shot through with near silence and existential crisis, the film is on surer ground as a bracing thriller than a character study, with its Hollywood ambitions ultimately trampling on, or at least mollifying, the work’s restless bid for recalibrating its identity toward this more European model of spy thrills (a la Jean-Pierre Melville) where movement and spatial action becomes a fount for melancholically discovering and negotiating the self in relation to the world. Good stuff all around, but the film is fenced in by its genre-bound nature; graces of wit, like a pen repurposed into a weapon, don’t quite suggest the menace and malevolence of a world with rapidly foreclosing possibility. As an entertainment, it is effective if slightly neutered and orthodox, but as the exploration of social anomie and the question of existence it more or less gestures toward throughout, the film never quite makes it past second base.
And gesture it most certainly does. The piece de resistance, at least thematically, is a night terror of an assassin-on-assassin prowl where Damon interrupts and takes down a fellow cog in the machine, the two nearly bonding with a fatalistic gloom of camaraderie. The one possible outlet for human connection Bourne discovers is also, like him, collateral damage in a world that spat them both out. Moments like these, where the film breathes and takes in the consequences of its knuckle-dusting search for meaning, are precious, but partially because they are so few and far between. Trapped between punching-bag and incisions of character melancholy, Identity’s quest for self-identification ultimately transforms into an uneasy reflection of its own inability to escape the liminal spaces in its own construction.
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Supremacy is above all a thankful reminder that this trilogy essentially predates, or more appropriately preempts, the gloomy morbidity of the modern blockbuster, where painstaking, earned thematic cynicism has been curdled into something resembling an implicit, microwavable cynicism about the audience’s willingness to judge real maturity itself. Seriousness, once an avenue for stylistic provocation, has instead thawed into one more tool in the producer’s cabinet for regurgitating a streamlined slice of thrills without spills. Consequence, once a legitimate factor in the action movie world, is now a candy-coated pill that action movies like The Dark Knight Returns take to feign consequence in the moment, to tease darkness and sobriety before doubling back into their engorged mega-blockbuster thrills. They recast violence in more solemn tones, but the thought of genuinely suggesting how unpleasant and bodily their violence might be frightens them still. The surface is more mature, but the genuine distress that ought to serve as corollary to real maturity is nowhere to be found; these are films that append cynicism like a gossamer cloth rather than letting the fatalistic nihilism seep into their cracks and suffuse their bones.
In contrast, violence in The Bourne Supremacy is scorchingly ugly and dispassionate, a disarming shift from the pompous grandeur of the modern blockbuster. Terse and bearing the tensile strength of a bull, director Paul Greengrass’ aesthetic knots itself in Doug Liman’s bleak cynicism from the prior film but unscrews the scruples of clarity even further; action in Supremacy is not vaguely arousing but physically discomfiting and uncomfortable. Supremacy, with its destructive editing rhythms that willingly dispose of coolness or composure, sacrifices the thought of a slick kill on an altar of stylistic turmoil.
An increasing glut of action films have soiled the good name of this harried, frayed editing style and jerky camera movement, applying them as an excuse to not stage or frame violence with any coiled intensity or sense of action and reaction, or poise and counterpoise. But The Bourne Supremacy relies on these very aesthetics to submerge the action in a feverishly uncontainable confusion that suggests a galvanic knife-wound into the heart of the blockbuster machine. Action isn’t confusing but disruptive, not sloppy but fascinatingly messy and abused. The disturbed filmmaking showcases an expression of a shaggy, shaken world where violence is somehow so omnipresent that even when it smacks you in the face it is unknowable and impossible to sit back and simply consider with a collected, calm sense of critical analysis.
It’s almost impossible to miss the fact that Greengrass’ film is a little mechanical around the edges and missing the somewhat spry sensibilities of Liman’s indie-grafted Identity (bearing the limber tenderness of that director’s earlier proving-ground days in the late ‘90s). While Identity staged an impromptu peace agreement between genres, Supremacy is simultaneously more reticent about shifting gears and more deliciously disobedient in its alchemic ability to energize its sole gear into the realm of jagged, sawtooth beauty. It’s a trade-off, undoubtedly, and on balance not one that favors either film or elevates either above their unembellished finesse. It would take one more go around the sun before the franchise would enter the holy halls of classic genre cinema, but the first two efforts aren’t simple warm-ups. B-sides maybe, but so was “I Am the Walrus”. It’s all relative, after all.
The Bourne Ultimatum
Identity and Supremacy were, each in their own way, effectively low-tech odes to personal ingenuity, and brisk, in-and-out subterfuge. But, with all apologies to the earlier groundwork films which committed their own satisfyingly treasonous espionage against the bigger-is-better blockbuster norm, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum’s crime is much more immediate and satisfying: out-and-out aggravated assault. This is a breathless, breakneck motion picture, an envoy bearing messages of stylistic chaos, a vanguard of a world out of sorts. And then smacking you in the face with the book the messages were written on in the first place, if you get the picture.
Cutting through the sometimes needless complications in spy cinema (and literature for that matter) with a ruthlessly discombobulated forward-thrust of nearly pure-cinema action, Ultimatum boasts a much maligned editing system that inscribes the twitchy jitters and shakes of hard-knuckle, edge-case living into its very fibers as cinema. Identity and Supremacy were efficient thrillers all their own, admirably devoid of the brooding macho poetics often congealed in the modern action cinema landscape. But Ultimatum is an attack dog, kindling Greengrass’ aesthetic anti-rhythm from Supremacy and really letting the screen have it with the cadence of a jackhammer and the countenance of a flesh wound.
Throughout, the action, the editing, the failure of the film to compose itself so we can enjoy it from afar all get in on the fun of disfiguring the world around us. Greengrass’ film obstructs conventional cinematic mechanics and normative rules that domesticate action cinema with clarity and concision, instead relying on style to warp physical space around us in an evocation of a disturbed, distorted world moving not only away from us but around and beyond us, stalking us until we can’t even stop to recognize it. Action it may be, but the film’s genre operates in the biome of raw, almost art brut physical malformation, a serrated reconnaissance of new possibility in the woolly cinematic space of genre.
Throughout, Damon’s always game reticence and refusal to cater to expectations for him to mug for the camera is the bedrock upon which the film quarantines the histrionic dramatic stakes of the action genre and evaporates their iron grip over the medium. Obviously coursing through Greengrass’ veins and flying on his wavelength, Damon’s caustic physicality embodies the film’s remarkably crystalline, pure flow of harried image and decomposed, brutalizing movement. The progression of the series from mildly heightened thriller alloyed with fluttering romance and visual wit to puncturing wound of seismic camera-editing interplay is completed; outside of perhaps The Raid and Mad Max: Fury Road, no action film from the past decade is more uncontaminated by unnecessary complication.
The thrust over three films from mildly befuddled humanistic whimsy and tonal fluctuation to sheer unerring mechanical perfection verifies Bourne’s massaging from disconcerted, lost human soul to violent piston with a monomaniacal purpose. Greengrass entrusts the film’s visual countenance itself with the subtle exploration of Bourne’s disfigured soul and the way our supposed entertainment is catalyzed by the death of his humanity. The result is a serpentine fiasco of continual motion as a squeamish fount of discomfort, with the action manhandling us rather than simply sitting back with a cigarette with slick determination. Stylistically winding itself up in the knots of its own verve and pandemonium, giving in to distress, and eventually uncoiling the series in a flurry of whirlwind movement and manic bedlam, The Bourne Ultimatum reflects the franchise finally giving in to the toxic global instability implicitly underwriting the distinctly cynical series up to that point.