Friday, August 10, 2012

Worth Mentioning - Bourne to Run

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody surveils the Bourne quadrilogy.


A dark and stormy night on the Mediterranean Sea. The crew of a fishing boat spots what they believe to be a man's corpse floating in the water, sixty miles from land. They pull it aboard and quickly find that their new passenger isn't dead, he's merely unconscious. And wounded, with two bullets in his back. The man has no possessions or identification on him, and when he awakes he has no memory at all of who he is, he can't even remember his own name. A hugely successful franchise has begun.

The source material is a trilogy of spy novels written by Robert Ludlum, beginning with 1980's The Bourne Identity, which itself may well have been inspired by the end of Ian Fleming's James Bond novel You Only Live Twice, which ends with a wounded Bond plunging into the ocean and waking up with no memory of his spy life or who he is, and the beginning of its follow-up, The Man with the Golden Gun, which finds that Bond's search for his past has led to him being brainwashed by his enemies. While based on Ludlum's work and sharing titles with the novels, the Bourne film series doesn't stay faithful for very long, quickly spinning off in its own direction.

The only clue the man has to follow is a lazer pointer that was implanted in his hip and shines out the number of a bank account in Zurich. At the bank, the man finds that his safe deposit box contains a gun, stacks of cash, and several passports with his picture but different names. One of his identities, Jason Bourne, has a Paris address, so that's his next destination. To get from Zurich to Paris, the man who now calls himself Jason Bourne hires a young down-on-her-luck woman named Marie to drive him for $20,000 cash. By the time Bourne and Marie reach Paris, the film has departed from Ludlum and entered original territory.

As Bourne runs on instinct, it becomes clear that he is highly capable and has obviously been through extensive training. He knows how to read people and situations, speaks several languages, and is a skilled fighter, able to easily fend off threats and kick the asses of attackers.

A lot of threats and attackers present themselves along the course of Bourne and Marie's journey. Not only do they run into trouble with the police, but it also turns out that Bourne worked as an assassin for a secret "special activities" division of the CIA called Treadstone. Bourne had gone missing two weeks earlier after a failed assassination attempt on exiled African dictator Nykwana Wymbosi, who had been threatening to reveal CIA secrets. When Treadstone head Alexander Conklin is alerted that Bourne has resurfaced and is acting strangely, he sends Bourne's three fellow assassins out into the field to stop him.

Making a big summer release for a studio was a change of pace for director Doug Liman, who had previously made a couple comedies with the indie Swingers and the low budget Go. Aided by cinematographer Oliver Wood, second unit director Alexander Witt, and editor Saar Klein, Liman proved that he could handle it, crafting a great, intelligent blockbuster with some fantastic moments of action.

Being an action star was something new for Matt Damon as well. The casting of Damon in the role of Jason Bourne is part of a shift that I've noticed in cinematic heroes since my youth, when the action genre was largely dominated by stars whose acting ability was secondary (at least) to their physicality and martial arts knowledge. In years since, it has mostly changed to hiring actors known for their ability first, then having them get in shape and learn how to make the fights look good. That has led to several casting decisions that I've seen make viewers wonder "How can that guy be an action hero?" before seeing the final product. If anyone wondered how Matt Damon could be an action hero, he certainly showed them.

The fight scenes are awesome, and there's a standout car chase through the streets of Paris mid-film. One of my favorite sequences is more low-key, with Bourne facing off against a fellow Treadstone "asset", a sniper called The Professor, in a snowy field. The scene ends with some poignant lines being exchanged between Bourne and a gravely wounded Professor about their shared profession and employer. "Look at what they make you give."

Eventually, Bourne realizes that the only way to resolve his problems is to go to Conklin himself... And things seem to get worked out and the story wrapped up reasonably well. If the series had ended here, it would've been fine, with Bourne free of Treadstone and getting a happily ever after in Greece with Marie. But now we know that's not to be.

Identity remains my favorite of the series because it does have that ending and the relationship with Marie, making it the most well-rounded, complete and self-contained film of the bunch. I also prefer the way that Identity is shot over its sequels, where I have issues with the use of shaky cam.

I wasn't always so keen on Identity. While I liked it, on first viewing I was disappointed that it had strayed so far from the novel, which I had read beforehand. I sought out a TV movie version that had been made in 1988, starring Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne, and for the most part had stayed very faithful to the novel. Ironically, when I watched the faithful version, I didn't enjoy as much as the version that had bothered me by straying.


When the sequel rejoins Bourne and Marie two years later, their happily ever after of running a scooter shop in Greece is far behind them. They have kept moving over the years to make sure no one can come after them and are now hiding in India. He still hasn't regained his memory and he's haunted by nightmarish flashbacks to his former life. As he's tried to figure everything out about his past, he's filled a scrapbook with clippings and notes.

The peace that Bourne achieved at the end of Identity might have stayed intact if CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy didn't go digging to find out who within the agency stole $20 million of funds being transferred through Moscow seven years before.

Landy's search for a suspect would lead her right to Deputy Director Ward Abbott, who had been Alexander Conklin's boss and ordered Conklin's assassination at the end of the previous film, closing down Treadstone due to the Bourne debacle. Abbott is the thief, and he used the money to set up an oil business for a Russian man named Yuri Gretkov, making them both extremely wealthy. To save himself and tie up loose ends, Abbott has Gretkov hire a Russian agent named Kirill to sabotage Landy's purchase of information on the theft, killing the men involved, stealing the info, and planting Bourne's fingerprints at the scene, framing him for the crime. To be extra safe, Kirill is then sent to India to kill Bourne.

In the Ludlum novel that shares this film's title, Bourne is coerced back into government work when shady officials have Marie kidnapped. Marie is also the catalyst for his actions here, but in this case it's her murder. In his attempt to kill Bourne, Kirill causes the death of Marie. The vehicle Bourne and Marie are in crashes into a river, so Kirill thinks he got them both and goes on his way. But Bourne is still alive and now he's out for revenge.

As Bourne unravels what's going on, bits of memory come back to him, and he finds that the same assassination that he's been dreaming of lately is part of all this. Russian MP Vladimir Neski had discovered that the $20 million theft from the CIA was an inside job, it's the proof he had that Landy was attempting to get ahold of, since Neski was killed soon after he originally gathered it. In a scenario pulled off by Bourne on his first mission as a coldblooded hitman for Ward and Conklin, it was made to look like Neski was killed by his wife in a murder-suicide. Now the reborn-with-a-conscience Bourne has to atone for his past sins in a wonderful dramatic climax where he apologizes to the Neskis' orphaned daughter and tells her the truth about her parents' demise.

That follows the action climax, the rematch between Bourne and Kirill, which involves a car chase through the streets of Moscow.

Although I was disappointed to see, after the ending the characters got in Identity, Marie get written out of the sequel within the first 20 minutes, Supremacy is a worthy follow-up. It remains very smart for an action film, delving further into the shady dealings with a plot that's more complicated. To be honest, upon first viewing the film did lose me a bit at some of the turns.

Doug Liman did not return to direct the second film, replaced by Paul Greengrass, whose filmography up until Supremacy consisted of dramas and documentaries. Greengrass brought a documentary style to his action debut, shooting it mostly handheld, and those handheld cameras can really whip around and get shaky during moments of intensity. "Shaky cam" is a style endorsed by second unit director Dan Bradley (in his stuntman days, Bradley played Jason Voorhees for the first day of filming on Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, chopping his way through a group of paintballers), who feels that the hectic movement of the camera gets viewers more involved in the action. Editors Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse keep things moving quickly, the average shot length in the film is just 1.9 seconds.

Bourne himself keeps moving quickly throughout the film as well, which is actually one thing that makes my attention wander during rewatches, it's filled with moments that are just Bourne power-walking through locations.


The Bourne Supremacy ended with an epilogue in which Bourne and Landy are both in New York City, having a conversation over the phone. She gives him the truth about his identity: his real name is David Webb and he was born on 4/15/71 in Nixa, Missouri.

Ultimatum takes a very unique approach for a sequel, in that the majority of it takes place between the last two scenes of Supremacy, Bourne's confession to the Neski girl and his talk with Landy. The film doesn't catch up to that phone conversation until 80 minutes in.

While the use of the scene in Supremacy gave the idea that Bourne had again achieved a tenuous peace and was going to fade back into off-the-grid obscurity, its follow-up shows that was not the case at all. Bourne never slowed down between those final scenes. Fueled by flashbacks to his torturous Treadstone admission process, he's on a mission to find the person who started all this trouble, the person who brought him into the program.

Bourne isn't the only one searching for answers, London journalist Simon Ross is working on an exposé about these secret organizations. During a phone conversation, Ross brings up an operation called "Blackbriar", something also mentioned by Ward at the end of Identity. A CIA listening station randomly scanning millions of cell phone calls picks up on the keyword and the head of Operation Blackbriar, Noah Vosen, is alerted almost instantly.

Blackbriar is the umbrella for all of the black ops programs. Full envelope intrusion, rendition, experimental interrogation. Lethal action. Blackbriar can get anything done without answering to anyone. And it's got a leak who's talking to Ross. Vosen can't let its secrets get out.

Ross even publishes an article about Jason Bourne and his situation, which is how he catches Bourne's attention. Bourne attemps to get in contact with Ross, leading to a masterful suspense sequence at London's Waterloo railway station that lasts for over ten minutes. While trying to avoid surveillance cameras and being recognized by the CIA agents that the place is crawling with, Bourne attempts to talk Ross safely through the station, past the agents on the ground and a sniper watching from above.

As Bourne fights his way along the information trail and across the globe, he finds an ally in Nicky Parsons, a young woman/former Treadstone techie who has been at the edge of things since working at Treadstone's Paris safe house in Identity.

Another, unexpected ally turns out to be Landy, who does not approve of how Vosen handles this Bourne situation or of the Blackbriar program. When the film catches up to the Supremacy phone call, it turns out that, while the reveal of Bourne's real name being David Webb is true, 4/15/71 is not his birthdate. It's a message. The address of the building in New York where he willingly joined Treadstone and went through Doctor Albert Hirsch's intense behavior modification program.

Most of Ultimatum's runtime is taken up by extended action and suspense sequences, including the aforementioned bit set at the Waterloo station and a cat & mouse foot chase through Tangiers. At this point, the car chases have become a series signature and we get another one of those, with Bourne racing through the streets of NYC.

The story isn't as strong or the plot as complicated as its predecessors, but situations are advanced, questions are answered, secrets go public, and the abundance of action makes it quite entertaining.

The shaky cam technique was used again on Ultimatum, and it seems that the filmmakers were emboldened by its successful application in Supremacy because things appear to be even shakier here. This is the one where I really have an issue with the style, as the camera zooms in and out and bobs around like the operator is about to drop it even during simple dialogue scenes with two people sitting at a table. I don't like it.

Returning editor Christopher Rouse won an Academy Award for his work this time around, with sound editors and sound mixers receiving Oscars as well.

Bourne learns everything he wants to know in this film, unless another sequel down the line tells us different, and the end finds him confronted by another assassin on a rooftop at the edge of the East River. In what may be his final moments, Bourne recalls the last words of The Professor. "Look at us. Look at what they make you give."

I don't find the character of Jason Bourne very interesting or compelling himself, he's mostly just a blank slate ass-kicking machine powering his way through scenes, the closest he gets to likeable is in Identity, but I do find his films to be very watchable. While I'd choose Identity if I was just going to watch one of them, to spend six hours of a day watching the whole trilogy back-to-back-to-back is a breeze.


Robert Ludlum ended his Bourne stories at the Identity - Supremacy - Ultimatum trilogy. When the movies hit it big, the literary series was revived with new books written by Eric Van Lustbader. Lustbader's first was released in 2007. The Bourne Legacy.

In the cinematic equivalent to Ludlum, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass were also happy with where the story had ended up at the end of Ultimatum. Some ideas for a 4th Damon-Bourne film were developed, but Damon and Greengrass soon moved on, content with leaving the film series at a trilogy. Maybe they'd return to the series someday, but not any time soon.

Universal and the producers not wanting to let the franchise lay dormant for too long, they began working on ideas on how to continue the series without its star. The man with the winning idea was Tony Gilroy, who had been a writer on all three of the films. While Greengrass was directing the Bourne sequels, Gilroy had branched out into directing himself, his first film being 2007's Oscar nominated (and winning, for Supporting Actress Tilda Swinton) Michael Clayton, which he followed with 2009's Duplicity. Now that he was established behind the camera with a couple dramatic thrillers, Gilroy was hired to direct the fourth Bourne as well as write it.

Gilroy's idea for how to make a Jason Bourne-less entry in the series was to pull back from the Bourne/Treadstone story, widen the scope and see the broader effect the events of the films, the actions of Bourne and the spilling of secrets were having.

The film starts off during the same time period as Ultimatum. Word is that London journalist Simon Ross is working on an exposé about the CIA's secret organizations, which is a concern to Eric Byer, head of the Department of Defense's secret organization Outcome. Outcome and Treadstone/Blackbriar cover some of the same ground, they run in the same circles, people involved with one know people involved with the other. If the Blackbriar investigations go too far, Outcome could be blown as well. Byer becomes increasingly disturbed as he watches the events of Ultimatum play out. Ross is assassinated right out in the open at Waterloo station, Blackbriar's secrets are leaked, there's a video online of Doctor Albert Hirsch, the brain behind Treadstone's behavior modification program, publicly acknowledging that he's best friends with Doctor Dan Hillcott of Outcome's behavior modification program. Byer makes the call: Outcome has to be shut down. And that means a lot of people have to be killed.

Outcome's approach to creating the perfect spy is heavy on science and pharmaceuticals. Each agent takes two chromosone-altering pills a day, one to enhance phycial ability, the other to enhance intelligence. Given their dependance on "chems", as they're referred to, most of Outcome's assets are taken out with a simple change of prescription. Their green and blue pills are replaced by an orange pill. Orange's immediate side effect: death.

This film's new heroic lead is Outcome agent Aaron Cross, currently hanging out with another agent at a training grounds in Alaska, staying in a log cabin 300 miles from the nearest neighbor. A cabin that Jason Bourne has apparently previously stayed in, as his name is among several carved into a bed. Cross lost his chems during his trek through the snowy wilderness and is anxiously awaiting a shipment of pills to be delivered via drone, but since the cabin is in such a remote area, it's decided to take the two assets there out not with orange pills, but to have drones blast them with missiles. That works for the other guy, but not for Cross.

The doctors who have been examining the Outcome agents and handing out the pills are also killed, in what is made to look like a workplace shooting spree murder-suicide. Doctor Marta Shearing survives the shooting, and when a hit squad shows up at her house to finish the job, Cross also shows up there and saves her life.

The two become dependant on each other. Cross needs Shearing's help in scoring him some pills. He's been off his chems too long and he's getting worried. He needs his intelligence enhancers. He was not a smart man before Outcome, and now that he's experienced intelligence, he doesn't want to go back. He's willing to put them into some very risky situations to make sure his IQ doesn't drop. On her side, Shearing needs Cross's help just to survive. Her life is in the hands of the man who, until now, she only knew as "program participant number five." (Shades of Short Circuit. Number five is alive!)

All of the ass kicking and desperation eventually builds up to an extended vehicle chase, this time with Cross and Shearing on a motorcycle, being pursued through the streets of Manila.

Jeremy Renner is on a great run, his acting chops having earned him back-to-back Oscar nominations in 2010 and '11, catching studio attention and landing him roles in huge action releases - Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Avengers, and now this. He does quite well at becoming the series' new star, his Aaron Cross having all the physical abilities of Bourne as well as more of a personality and easy-going nature. Cross doesn't seem to be too bothered by the shutdown of Outcome and the murder of everyone involved. He takes that in stride, just give him his meds.

The series has always cast some amazing actors as the CIA characters - Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn - and that trend continues with Edward Norton and Stacy Keach being at the forefront of the Department of Defense workers.

Gilroy has had a rocky relationship with the Bourne series over the years. He wasn't happy with how The Bourne Supremacy turned out, he wrote a draft for Ultimatum that Damon has publicly bashed and he didn't watch the finished version of that until he was offered Legacy. He does a fine job in taking over the series, although he does seem a bit too enamored with the behind-the-scenes bureaucrats. The story of the film is pretty simple and straightforward and didn't really need to take up the 135 minutes that it does. It's the longest Bourne film yet, beating previous record holder Identity by 16 minutes, but with some tweaks that gap could've been made closer, the exciting stuff could've been gotten to quicker, and there could've been less time spent on Norton in offices and staring at computer screens.

Gilroy made this one a family affair, co-writing the script with his brother Dan and bringing on his brother John as editor. Series composer John Powell does not return, replaced by Gilroy's Clayton and Duplicity composer James Newton Howard. Gilroy also brings along his previous films' director of photography, the awesome Robert Elswit. After Ghost Protocol and The Town, this is Elswit's third time in a row working with Renner.

Dan Bradley stays on the series as the second unit director, and while the film's dialogue scenes are shot with a steadier hand, Bradley's action remains shaky, close, and hectic.

Aaron Cross's story could end here, or he could continue on. As Byer tires of the failed attempts to stop Cross, he reveals that there is another level of secrecy, yet another organization is up and running. Called LARX, it's a group that is supposed to be the best, most effective yet. That's something Cross could deal with down the road. There's even been some hypothesizing that Damon could be convinced to return for a Bourne-Cross team-up movie.

There are some things that Bourne could return for. As the Treadstone/Blackbriar situation heads to court, Pamela Landy is in serious trouble for helping him. It'd only be right for him to show up and somehow get her out of that jam.

Cross. Bourne. Bourne and Cross. Whatever it is, if another movie is made, I'll be there.

And Lustbader has provided them with plenty more titles to choose from: Betrayal. Sanction. Deception. Objective. Dominion. Imperative.

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