Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Bourne Re-encapsulation

Robert Ludlum’s ‘The Bourne Identity’ is an exciting if needlessly overcomplicated espionage novel about an amnesiac assassin trying to recover his memories whilst a shadowy agency manoeuvres him into a showdown with near-mythical hitman Carlos the Jackal. Doug Liman’s film version takes the basic amnesia hook and jettisons everything else. Paul Greengrass’s take on Ludlum’s two sequels ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ retain just the character and title. Tony Gilroy’s ‘The Bourne Legacy’ borrows the title of one of Eric Van Lustbader’s continuation novels but has a completely different main character.

Ludlum was a solid, occasionally inspired, thriller writer who has been particularly ill-served in terms of adaptations: ‘The Osterman Weekend’ is minor Peckinpah, ‘The Holocroft Covenant’ minor Frankenheimer, the handful of TV movies/mini-series have been uninspired, and the Bourne franchise – while generally representing the highest quality of onscreen Ludlum – have very little to do with their source material.

‘Jason Bourne’ – Greengrass’s reteaming with Matt Damon – moves things away from Ludlum even further: the author’s trademark “definite article/name/noun” titling system, which Lustbader had the good grace to preserve, is done away with in favour of perhaps the most insipid title anyone could have saddled the film with. It’s like a making a follow up to ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and calling it ‘George Smiley’.

I’m off to see ‘Jason Bourne’ – or, as I’m already preferring to think of it, ‘The Bourne Reinstatement’ – later today; accordingly, I binged-watched the four preceding films over a 24-hour period as a prelude; and since I’ve not previously reviewed any of them for this blog, here’s a quick-fire appraisal of them: ‘The Bourne Overview’, as it were.

I’d not watched ‘Identity’ in a while and the first thing that struck me is how clunky the computers look in the interminable CIA scenes where everyone spins round from their monitors to import portentous screeds of dialogue while the camera whip-pans over to Chris Cooper as he points and snaps his fingers and barks a lot of gobbledygook that generally begins with the homily “okay, people”. (Granted, David Strathairn says “okay, people” a lot in one of the sequels, so maybe it’s a CIA thing.) The second thing that struck me is how little facility Liman has with action scenes. He’s not bad at foot chases and the mechanics of Bourne evading capture, and there’s a perfectly functional car chase at one point, but the hand-to-hand stuff is so overly-stylised it’s as if Liman were aiming for the balletic intensity of, say, John Woo but only had an episode of ‘Dragonball’ as a point of reference.

What the film does have in its favour is Tony Gilroy’s script, which keeps things moving and pays attention to tradecraft rather than having Bourne’s globetrotting quest for his own identity play out as a Bondian trail of gadgets and destruction. The plot is little more than: Bourne gets amnesia after a failed mission, his bosses think he’s gone rogue, everyone tries to kill each other; however, Gilroy manages to squeeze in a bit of debate on the nature and dehumanisation of what Bourne and his ilk do for a living. It’s there in the human side that he gradually reveals to Marie (Franke Potente), the bystander to whom Bourne appeals for help early on in the narrative, and it’s there in his confrontation with an assassin codenamed The Professor (Clive Owen), a scene which segues from cat-and-mouse tension to a surprisingly rueful character moment.

On balance, while ‘Identity’ is a good but not great film, it’s easy to see why it found a huge and appreciative audience, not least because of Damon’s pared-down performance. Its key appeal, though, is Bourne’s function as an anti-hero; a rebel of sorts. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to call the character a Robin Hood for the surveillance/information age, but he’s definitely a thorn in the establishment’s side, rather than a tool of the establishment a la James Bond.

‘The Bourne Supremacy’ put Greengrass in the director’s chair, upped the ante on the political conspiracy narrative and frankly took the staging of action scenes to a new level. ‘~ Supremacy’ is where Bourne coheres. Strands from the first film – particularly the importance to overarching narrative of junior CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) – are rigorously developed, while Brian Cox takes over from Chris Cooper as a Machiavellian spymaster with a ruthless agenda. Muddying the waters even further, Treadstone – the black ops programme that trained Bourne – is now under investigation by Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). This pressure cooker environment of the CIA dividing into factions and plotting against its own gives the office-based scenes a pulse that Liman tried for but reduced to cliché. There’s a scene, for example, of Landy opening a box, pulling out a file and opening it to find a key piece of information that’s more urgently edited than anything in Liman’s film.

Naturally, these shenanigans define ‘Supremacy’ as a more cynical film; indeed, the first act disposal of Marie is positively mean-spirited even if does give Bourne every reason to take the fight to his former employers. Fight being the operative word. Where the hand-to-hand business was hyper-stylised in ‘Identity’, here it’s down and dirty; Bourne and his antagonists bleed and sport bruises. A joltingly intense car chase in Moscow towards the end of the film sees Bourne hobble away from the carnage with a limp.

Greengrass stages large-scale suspense/cat-and-mouse scenes as brilliantly as he does the action scenes. He has a particular flair for exploding crowds and vast spaces. A sequence where Bourne evades a bunch of CIA operatives as he makes contact with Nicky during demonstration march, trams treading through the bustling mass of protestors, is one of the film’s best moments and points towards a set-piece in ‘Ultimatum’ that is arguably the franchise’s high point to date. He’s damn good with actors, too, as demonstrated by the performances from Damon, Stiles, Cox, Allen and Karl Urban.

As ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ opens, the conspiracy that was revealed at the end of ‘Supremacy’ looks set to cause greater embarrassment to the CIA. Someone in-house has talked to the press about Blackbriar – the black ops imperative that has succeeded Treadstone – and Simon Ross (Paddy Consodine), investigative journalist working for The Guardian, is getting closer and closer to the truth. Another shadowy CIA head honcho type, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who’d rather Landy and Parsons and everybody else connected with Bourne would just shut up and let him get on with his career, and for whom this meddling newsman is the last straw, authorises a hit on Ross on home soil. Cue Bourne’s intervention as he tries to manoeuvre Ross through the crowded environs of Waterloo station under the noses of a surveillance team and a hitman. Greengrass achieves a level of suspense that merits comparison with Hitchcock.

Thwarted in his attempt to contact Ross’s source, Bourne opts for a risky gambit which involves matching wits with Vosen on the latter’s home turf. Along the way, the expected foot chases, car chases and hand-to-hand fights ensue, augmented by a free-running sequence across the rooftops of Tangier. Granted, there’s little in ‘~ Ultimatum’ that hasn’t been done its predecessors, but whereas Greengrass defined the essential Bourne aesthetic in ‘Supremacy’, here he fine tunes it. Consequently, while there’s a sense of the familiar about ‘Ultimatum’, it’s certainly the most satisfying instalment both on a narrative level and as an action thriller. It’s mainstream filmmaking that treats the audience as intelligent and offers a sense of resolution to its protagonist’s journey of self-rediscovery.

Which is more than can be said for ‘The Bourne Legacy’. Gilroy, taking the reins as director, tries to reinvent the franchise with a new character, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), by means of keeping things more or less the same. So instead of having Treadstone or Blackbriar, we have Outcome, a black ops project where operatives are medically enhanced for stamina and intelligence. Instead of amnesiac Bourne, we have chemically dependent Cross. Instead of Marie or Nicky, we have on-the-run scientist Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) who joins Cross in his globetrotting. Instead of Cooper, Cox and Strathairn (although the latter puts in a cameo), we have Stacy Keach and Edward Norton as shadowy conspirators.

Granted, Gilroy starts the ball rolling effectively enough, contrasting Cross’s training mission in Alaska with events at the CIA top table as ‘Legacy’ overlaps with ‘Ultimatum’ and everyone involved in quasi-legal black ops work (which seems to be basically the entire CIA) gets cold feet; in particular, Keach and Norton are keen to plug the plug on Outcome because of (a) its operational proximity to Blackbriar and (b) to protect an even more hush-hush project, LARX. Most of the Outcome operatives are taken out quickly in a cynical act of betrayal by their handlers. Cross, still in Alaska, presents a thornier proposition.

In adding another layer to the conspiracy, Gilroy doesn’t so much expand the Bourne mythology – his stated intent – as cheapen it. He cheapens the action, too. His only previous directing credits were talky dramas, and it’s immediately apparent that he’s much happier directing men in suits in offices. Where the action in ‘Legacy’ works, it’s purely because of Renner’s facility in this department. The staging – apart from a decent shoot-out when Cross rescues Marta – is notably poor. The extended motorbike chase that provides the film’s denouement is shot with such little regard for the participants’ spatial location to each other and edited so haphazardly that becomes almost abstract. Moreover, the final act introduction of a LARX supersoldier, coupled with the lack of any real resolution to the story, suggests that Gilroy is trying to establish his own parallel franchise – more of same, with key players from the canon films relegated to cameos. Here’s hoping ‘Jason Bourne’ re-establishes the winning Damon/Greengrass formula and puts a stop to it.

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