The spy film is one that has seemingly come into fashion and drifted away just as quickly at different times. Obviously the height of its success would probably be during the golden years, so to speak, of Bond. However, after many years of that series playing a form of top trumps with ever more ridiculous gadgets and female names (I blame Pussy Galore), there was sure to be an inevitable backlash. Critics had started once again voicing their displeasure with this playground style of narrative and argued that it lacked not only relevancy to the modern audience but also any kind of freshness that it once had. Enter into this scenario The Bourne Identity - based on the novel of the same name by author Robert Ludlum.
Like the Jack Ryan films which starred Harrison Ford, it painted an all too different picture of the world of the intelligence agencies. Rather than being glamorous institutions filled to the brim with fast cars, disposable poker cash and gadgets as far as the eye could see, it portrayed things probably as close to how they really were without dropping the story to such a low level that it would lack excitement. The corridors aren't populated by exotic spies but rather middle aged men who wouldn't look out of place at a conference for insurance reps. Budgets and interdepartmental politics play as great a part as homeland security for these men.
At the helm of this skewed take on the spy thriller was Doug Liman. For a man who had broken onto the scene with the frankly marvellous male bonding comedy Swingers (1996) and followed up this success with the rave scene ensemble piece Go (1999), you'd be forgiven for perhaps doubting the man's suitability for overseeing a film that was likely to hinge on its ability to thrill with its action scenes and keep the audience perpetually tense between them. Though his pedigree at the time wasn't stellar in this field (whether you think he's proved he can adeptly handle this genre depends, I suppose, on how you view the carnage in Mrs and Mrs Smith, though he probably blew any brownie points he made there with the interminable Jumper but I digress) he, for the most part, manages these scenes very well.
For those who have been living under a rock for the past few years, perhaps a brief synopsis is in order. A man (Matt Damon playing an unnamed character at this point but the name of the film perhaps gives away a little early what his real name is - a decision I've never quite understood) is found, by some small scale fishermen, floating in the ocean. Once their shock over him actually being alive has subsided, it is discovered that this wetsuit covered body has been shot twice in the back and contains some sort of implant under his skin which gives us no more information than the address of a bank and an account number. This opening segment not only sets the scene for the viewer, giving them a brief jumping off point through which the action can unfold, but it also shows us what level of realism to expect from the film as a whole. On the one hand we have a sombre opening that is about as far away from the glamour of Bond as it is possible to get. The boat is rickety and the fishermen are haggard old seadogs replete with facial hair and one can only assume questionable personal hygiene. However, whilst I can accept that a fisherman might know a thing or two about first aid and not be squeamish when it comes to the sight of blood, I don't know how many carry what look to be surgical scalpels aboard their ship. I have not read the book but I can only assume that it is made abundantly clear within it, that the elderly man who tends to Bourne had some kind of medical experience as I'm not sure how many fishermen would choose to cut a man from his wetsuit using a scalpel rather than scissors, and avoid filleting him. We are also privy to the bullets being extricated - as per usual, the old clichés are peddled out here; bullets never go so deep that they cannot be removed with a pair of needle-nosed pliers of some kind, they never fragment thus they can be shown coming out in one uniform and barely damaged piece of lead. Top it all off with the shot that has been repeated ad nauseum, that of the bullets being dropped from the pincers/pliers from a few inches of height into a metal dish of some kind complete with the “ping” noise that we've all no doubt heard a thousand times in such action fare.
So, it's fair to say that one might view this as a mixed opening of sorts. Originality and realism mixed with well trodden standards of the genre. The twist here being that our leading character has apparently got some form of retrograde amnesia whereby he cannot remember who he is or why he got there, but is still imbued with all skills he learned before his sudden memory loss. This, then, is the driving force behind the film, the reason it is so titled and the pivot around which the whole film revolves. It is an interesting premise, but one that as I understand it, is entirely improbable (I'm talking of this type of amnesia, not that spies do not exist). The question of who he is remains a mystery for much of the film but the reason that this raises itself above any other action thriller with a hook is the continuing shifting of the sands. We are never given a sure footing upon which to rest as we are whisked along in this mans journey of discovery. There are multiple mysteries other than his identity: who is after him? Why are they pursuing him? Who can he trust? What has he done? These are all approached, not in any consecutive manner, but instead interwoven throughout the narrative.
Liman does a sterling job steering a project the likes of which he has never approached before. The myriad of action scenes might centre the focus on the director, but whether they be hand to hand combat, gunplay or car chases, they all sizzle onto the screen with veracity. If there was a criticism to be made of these sequences, it might be argued that the quick cuts used to heighten the appearance of Bourne's hand speed somewhat lessen the impact of such strikes as they can seem almost too quick for the viewer to appreciate any momentum or strength behind them. I particularly enjoyed the car chase sequence, not only for its choreography but also for the use of the now classic Mini as a means of transport for our fleeing hero. Tight turns, small alleys through which police cars and their modern width can't follow and the requisite rapid descent down a flight of steps are all present in a sequence that made me wish those who chose to remake The Italian Job had taken notes.
It is not merely the on screen carnage that is well shot, as that makes up for but a small amount of total screen time. Of note is the way in which Liman continues to keep us on the edge of our seats with the uncertainty of the central character. This is embodied in the shaky camerawork, which not only heightens the sense of realism and cuts down any barrier between us and him, but also serves as a prompt to his continual unease. The shots sway and bobble during chases and moments of confusion, yet when his mind is focused and there is a clear thought pattern emerging, the camera steadies, as if both it and he have found sure footing for a brief moment. I've never been a great fan of the shaky camera technique as all too often it is over played and thus reverses its effect by putting up an inescapable lack of realism due to the viewer being overly aware of its use. In this instance I found myself never once questioning its use even in a two hour feature.
This sound basis would all be for nought, though, if the acting was not up to par. Thankfully, the cast assembled is extremely strong. Matt Damon may be the face on the cover but credit must go to Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), Chris Cooper (American Beauty, Adaptation) and Brian Cox - a man who has appeared in everything from Shakespearean theatre to videogames and the gamut in between. This ensemble perfectly balances the focus that is ever on Damon's shoulders and helps create a level of believability to the world into which Bourne has been plunged. For every fight scene and car chase the central character becomes embroiled in, there is a counter scene consisting of men in shirts and ties watching computer screens, talking on phones and the inevitable political machinations that accompany the intelligence agency that employs them.
The reality is that this is not a simple spy thriller, but in fact a political spy thriller. This distinction makes all the difference when differentiating it from the Bond franchise that preceded it. The multitude of European locations are present and correct, bouncing from Barcelona to Zurich, Rome to Hamburg, but our protagonist doesn't find himself anywhere near a roulette table. Instead, he spends much of the film dishevelled, sporting a haircut that his mum might have given him and a jumper that looks like his gran knitted as a Christmas present and thus is duty bound to wear. The car he flees in is a battered old mini, not an Aston Martin and there is nary a gadget in sight. This push for realism is somewhat lost about half way through though when our hero and his female sidekick change their attire to all black ensembles (because that isn't in any way conspicuous is it?) and thus find themselves looking more like extras from The Matrix.
For all Liman's sterling work, there are a couple of extra key moments that, like the change of clothing, only serve to lessen the stark, un-Bond like nature of proceedings. For a world of covert assassins that have to be discreet, an abseiling lunatic that smashes through the window of an apartment in a built up area, spraying the interior with unsilenced machine gun fire seems less than low key. This seems a shame as up to this point, every effort had been made to balance the action needed for such a thriller with a finely tuned amount of plausibility - not so much that it detracts from anything happening, but just enough that we don't expect men to start throwing grenades in the street and Rambo to turn up. For all the critique one might have of such an incredulous assassination attempt by a supposedly covert agent, at least it remains free from camera trickery and computer generated effects. This is a key area where the film does strive for the full two hours to remain pure in its representations of carnage, only falling out of line with this ethos in the final five minutes with an effect that looks all too jarring and frankly grated for me against the rest of the film as a whole.
These, however, are minor criticisms that are far outweighed by the plethora of good that is apparent. The acting is first rate and the cast of supporting characters are multi layered and keep you guessing to the end. The political backdrop helps raise this above many a thriller and the pleasing credence given to the audience whereby nothing is explained in painstakingly simplistic terms, but rather left for the viewer to compile the amalgamation of evidence and draw their own conclusions and fill in the blanks at their own pace. For me, the best compliment you can give a film is that it may take more than one viewing to appreciate it, and this falls squarely in that category. A well acted, well rounded thriller with intelligence and generally well choreographed action that makes its two hour run time zip by.
The vast majority of these points stand as much for the sequels as for the original film, but I feel it's worth addressing only the points in which these films vary from their predecessor. The sequel, The Bourne Supremacy seemed to many to be continuing a story that had been wrapped up well and neatly concluded. However, although Bourne now knows who and what he is or was, there is fresh subterfuge afoot. Doug Liman exits as director for this film and in steps Paul Greengrass to take over. Having previously shone with a much acclaimed portrayal of a dark moment in recent history - Bloody Sunday in 2002, he may have seemed as ill equipped to handle a mainstream action thriller as Liman was before him. However, like his predecessor, he acquits himself well for the most part. Bloody Sunday contained a much praised, almost documentary style filming of the carnage on screen, that Greengrass was almost perfectly placed to continue the similar trait of this series. If anything, the main criticism levelled at the sequel would be that he employs this method too keenly, to the detriment of certain scenes. The car chase from the first film was just about perfect in its execution, with just the right amount of unsteady camera work to give the feel of fluidity and realism, yet without annoying the viewer. Here, at a key moment in the final act of the movie, a pivotal car chase is, for my mind, spoilt by this technique at times. All the chases in the film employ this shakiness as a means to heighten the suspense as, unlike the first, these sequences just aren't that well choreographed. When we first meet Bourne in this film, he is living an idyllic life on the sea front in Goa, but this is soon shattered. The ensuing vehicular pursuit down a few winding streets is against a backdrop of landscape too open to give the claustrophobic sense of prey trapped in a maze that was so well evoked in the first of the series. The fallback to this lack of true anxiety seems to be that of extreme wobbliness on the part of the cameraman.
Similarly, the key fight between Bourne and the last of the remaining “treadstone” sleepers is at times nothing more than a flurry of fast cuts and attempts to disorient the audience to mislead them into assuming there is a monumental fight ensuing that is somehow impossible to catch with the naked eye or even a camera. Sadly, this doesn't work when taken to the extremes that Greengrass employs. There is still a good degree of tension to such scenes but ultimately they overegg the pudding that had such a nice recipe laid down by Liman. Luckily, one place that matches the original is that of the cast. The loss of Chris Cooper is fairly major but it is well compensated by a greater screen presence of Brian Cox and the introduction of Joan Allen (The Contender). One usually expects sequels to contain a somewhat darker tone than their predecessors, but the introduction of Allen's character Pamela Lindy as an essentially good person within the CIA searching for the truth about the “treadstone” affair, steers this ship the other way a little. If anything, I was sorry to see a genuinely moral person within the tapestry that had been woven of the intelligence services from the first film - one of politics and self service and above all ambiguity. There are twists and turns within but nothing that hits quite the same highs of the nihilistic and murky grandiosity of Identity. It is far from being a bad film though, as there is much to like here. The fights and chases are still well above those of similar fare and the cast are never less than credible in their roles. However, as with any such sequel where the bar has been placed high by the first instalment, it just can't quite replicate in any area the level of tension needed to really grip the viewer. It is not entirely down to the director or the plotting that places undue emphasis on a fragmented memory and a subplot of culpability, but also the fact that we are well within familiar territory. A change of location to Goa for a car chase proves that this is best left within the tight streets of urban Europe, but in order to keep the momentum of the series, the action needed to be faster, louder, more intelligent and at the very least just as well choreographed. It is these factors' lack of emergence that can make this feel like the runt of the litter in comparison to the other two films. It is still immensely enjoyable fun, but the edge that was needed never truly materialises and even its pontificating in the final moments upon the terrible deeds Bourne has committed doesn't bring this to the same level of shadiness that was created in Identity with its bleak look at politics and bureaucracy.
Thankfully, things pick up for the third instalment, The Bourne Ultimatum, which continues the story directly where the second ended. Well, in a manner it does - there is an oddity whereby the final moments of Supremacy are in fact from the very middle of Ultimatum, thereby skewing the timeline in a very odd fashion momentarily. This certainly jarred for me, but it isn't a major criticism. If you discount the last minute of the second film, then we find Ultimatum opening directly where the story finished last time - Bourne is in Moscow, injured with a bad leg as well as a bullet wound to his shoulder, and on the run from the police. Unsurprisingly, they'd like a polite word in his shell-like about the shenanigans he's been up to in their city and the trail of destruction he's left in his wake. This immediacy into the action really helps propel the story forward and creates a great sense of pace and momentum between the two sequels that was only lessened by the aforementioned minute at the end of Supremacy that twists the timeline in order for the film to have ended on a positive note.
The law of diminishing returns is pleasingly ignored, avoided and kicked well into touch. The loss of a key actor or two from each film hasn't affected the superb ensemble as new blood is drafted in to fill the gaps and it is never simply the re-use of a persona in a different guise, but rather an entirely fresh character, complete with their own aims, goals, deceptions and flaws. With Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and Franka Potente all absent, the return of Joan Allen as Pamela Landy alongside her aide is the thread which keeps an air of familiarity to proceedings and doesn't make the viewer feel they are watching an entirely new universe. Scott Glenn (most recently seen portraying Donald Rumsfeld in W.) enters as the director of the CIA - an elusive figure with an air of mystery about him, partly attributable to his meagre but effective screen time. Though Glenn never establishes himself in the way one might want as a screen presence, the same cannot be said of David Straithairn. Here he plays another mid level intelligence officer, desperate to bring Bourne in - this may seem a re-hash of the roles Cooper and Cox brought to life in the previous two films and in truth it partially is. The same shadiness surrounds him and he continues blindly to use questionable tactics, but he is very much needed to act as a counterpart to Allen's Landy - the moderate and sensible figure that is the audience's ticket into the world and the figure with whom they are most likely to identify. There are several other key actors such as Julia Stiles (Mona Lisa Smile) and Paddy Considine (Dead Man's Shoes), but they appear for segments of the film rather than as consistent pieces of the puzzle as a whole.
This veritable cornucopia of a cast would be for nought though if the action was not up to scratch. Thankfully Greengrass seems to have found an element of refinement to his fast cuts for such things as hand to hand combat and allows the viewer now to at least get a perfunctory, momentary glance at what Bourne's fists are doing in such scenes, rather than intentionally blurring proceedings to the point of incoherence for the audience until the camera steadies and all but the titular character are unconscious as was evident in places during Supremacy. For those who suffer from car sickness, I'm afraid the constant use of a shaky camera is still in effect during the car chase sequences, but, again, this has been refined slightly. You may still question which vehicle has hit what object or which direction they are going in but you'll at least get a fairly decent view of the expensive damage done to numerous stunt vehicles. The chase segments are also far better choreographed than they were in the preceding film and there is an element of tightness to them that raises the tension to a degree that was lacking at points from the second of the series.
Ultimatum is a fine return to form for the trilogy to end on and rounds off a story arc that may seem convoluted and forced at points but pays off with a satisfying and gloriously punchy ending, in both emotional and action terms. A spy story for the post Bond generation. A tense, fast, political thriller, occasionally misfiring slightly, but always action packed and never boring or predictable. I can't think of any greater recommendation for such a series.
Our Review Ethos