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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

The ‘Bourne’ Trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007): Action in the Edit

Directed by: Doug Liman [1], Paul Greengrass [23] || Produced by: Doug Liman, Richard N. Gladstein [1], Patrick Crowley [13], Frank Marshall, Paul L. Sandberg [23]

Screenplay by: Tony Gilroy [13], William Blake Herron [1], Scott Z. Burns, George Nolfi [3] || Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles [13], Franka Potente, Brian Cox, Gabriel Mann [12], Clive Owen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje [1], Karl Urban [2], Joan Allen [23], David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Édgar RamÍrez, Albert Finney [3]

Music by: John Powell || Cinematography: Oliver Wood || Edited by: Saar Klein [1], Rick Pearson [2], Christopher Rouse [23] || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 118 minutes [1], 108 minutes [2], 116 minutes [3] || 1 = Identity, 2 = Supremacy, 3 = Ultimatum

One of my favorite action series as an adolescent and as an adult today is Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass’ Bourne franchise (2002-2016), which both popularized the predominant Western action filmmaking technique of combining rapid-fire edits with chaotic handheld camerawork (i.e. “shaky-cam“) for action sequences, and established Matt Damon as a bankable movie star. The series ruined not only James Bond (1962-2002) but most other spy-thrillers for me until the Bond and Mission: Impossible (1996-2022) series regrew their testicles with Casino Royale (2006) and Ghost Protocol (2011), respectively. Modern Korean cinema has many great crime dramas and serial-killer thrillers, contemporary Indonesian film features a plethora of awesome purebred action films, but there’s something unique to big(ger)-budget Western spy-movies that lend their action a sense of tension and suave charisma, even if they’re not involved with Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Top: Unlike later Bourne films, Identity builds its narrative core around audience-surrogate and female lead Franka Potente (right), who’s introduced to Damon’s Bourne much as we are. Bottom: In Supremacy’s bonkers car chase-finale, Federal Security Service agent Karl Urban prepares for the worst T-bone accident on film.

Based on the novels of the same names by Robert Ludlum, which debuted in the 1980s, the series was adapted for the big screen by writer Tony Gilroy and producer-director Liman; the series took on a life separate from the source material, modernizing Ludlum’s Cold War-era espionage thrills and spycraft for the post-9/11 era zeitgeist. Echoes of surveillance overreach, the Patriot Act, and various reactions to the United States’ “War on Terror” throughout the 2000s permeate the narratives of all three original films (2002, 2004, 2007) and define the backstory of its title character, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, a black operations Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assassin based in Paris.

Though it spawned legions of imitators with its shaky-cam cinematography and quick cuts (shaky-cam dominates every action scene, from close-quarters combat [CQC] to shootouts to foot and car chases), no imitator ever replicated the effectiveness of the Bourne films’ chaotic handheld techniques. The reason for Bourne’s cinematographic success include how (1) its cinéma-vérité aesthetics feel appropriate for its espionage-based narrative, and (2) neither Liman, director of The Bourne Identity (2002), nor Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Ultimatum (2007), and later Jason Bourne (2016), ever used this style to censor the violence itself. Greengrass in particular extended this handheld documentarian approach to dialogue-heavy, dramatic scenes where conversations captured via the traditional shot-reverse-shot setup used extraordinarily long-lenses to give the viewer a sense of spying on covert affairs. From the tone and themes of the story itself to the consistency of the style’s usage, the Bourne movies never resorted to shaky-cam as a gimmick but rather as their primary method for visual storytelling.

Another explanation for the success of Bourne’s handheld camerawork/editing style combination, not to mention its influence, is how damned good it is. Most all of the CQC is well choreographed and efficient, never flashy for the sake of it, and every action sequence either advances the story or informs major characterizations. The foot and vehicular chases in particular are so efficient to the point where set-pieces can cover incredible geography in the space of 30 seconds, while longer sequences that last minutes feel like an eternity due to their nonstop tension. The brutal efficiency of Bourne’s choreography, combined with the precision of its edits, are brilliant characterization of Damon’s protagonist, and this blend of characterization, theme, and cinematographic viciousness are so often forgotten by many of the franchise’s imitators.

This cinematographic efficiency extends to these stories’ immaculate pace and reasonable lengths. None of the original three Bourne films breach two hours (Jason Bourne is only 123 minutes long), and this commitment to surgical pacing, scene placement, and scene length makes these action movies feel refreshing compared to the bloated 2.5-3 hour runtimes of various 2010s blockbusters.

The weaknesses of the original trilogy are few and far between, but if I had to find significant faults somewhere, they would be in the middle chapter, The Bourne Supremacy. Greengrass’ initial takeover of the franchise remains a slick, well designed action film, but it suffers from a lack of action variety compared to other franchise entries, not to mention some growing pains as the series camerawork grew more intense. The photography of the lone extended CQC sequence involving Bourne and a former assassin colleague (Marton Csokas) in Munich is so wild, in fact, that the shaky-cam distracts from the action rather than emphasizes it. To that end, the entire narrative of Supremacy feels like connective tissue between the standalone Identity and the superior finale of Ultimatum.

In my personal favorite CQC set-piece of the series, Damon brawls with fellow CIA operative Joey Ansah in Ultimatum.

Bourne’s initial run is the rare trilogy where the third film concludes a three-act narrative so well that people have difficulty accepting a legacy sequel (i.e. Jason Bourne), even when that legacy sequel continues the franchise name in a positive way. The series’ impact on mainstream action filmmaking cannot be understated to this day; it not only popularized a specialized form of editing and camerawork for cinematic violence that no one — no one — could replicate despite countless tries, but it upped the ante for fellow mainstream spy films like Mission: Impossible and the Daniel Craig-era Bond films (2006-2021). While mainstream action movies have since evolved into the fluid long takes and intricate choreography of Westernized gun-fu (e.g. John Wick [2014-2022], Extraction [2020]), not to mention the hyperviolent gore and digital handheld of Indonesian action cinema (e.g. The Raid [2011, 2014], The Night Comes for Us [2018]), the influence of the Bourne movies remains, and for good reason: Few popular genre titles have melded their cinematographic and screenplay tones as well as Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass did here with Bourne, and almost none are better edited.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I struggle to think of an action franchise that has as great editing as Bourne, and I don’t think I can suggest one (Fury Road [2015] is as good, but that’s one film, not three). Doug Liman, Paul Greengrass, and Tony Gilroy defined these films by their efficiency, from the fight sequences to the characterizations to their overall length, and that strategy paid off in spades. While Bond movies are renowned for their charisma and attitude, Mission: Impossible films by their sheer physicality, the Bourne trilogy made its mark via coldhearted, tactile precision. Nothing is wasted.

However… the Bourne formula stumbles, if only somewhat, in its middle chapter, Supremacy. Damon’s fight with Marton Csokas overdoses on shaky-cam, while the overarching narrative feels more like a setup for Ultimatum than a standalone project.

—> All three films are RECOMMENDED, but I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Ultimatum.

? … mystery surrounds the fate of David Webb, also known as Jason Bourne, the source behind the exposure of the Blackbriar program. It had been reported that David was shot and fell from a Manhattan rooftop into the East River ten stories below. However, after a three-day search, Webb’s body has yet to be found.

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