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Aug 5, 2007

BOURNE SHOWS BOND HOW IT'S REALLY DONE



There is a good reason James Bond had to change up his image after 44 years and 21 movies, and that reason is Jason Bourne.

Universal’s loose adaptation of the Robert Ludlum trilogy of novels, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002), THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) and now THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007), has taken cinema-goers by storm. What looked like a pretty run-of-the-mill action release in 2002, directed by Doug Liman a director not known for action films (his previous efforts being GO and SWINGERS…SWINGERS?) THE BOURNE IDENTITY ended up to be a smart and tense action packed film, led by a very adept Matt Damon whose cool demeanor allowed him to get through the toughest situation with skill and wits, and he always seems to be 5 steps ahead of his enemies even though his memory has been shot to hell thanks to a hit job gone bad. Suddenly the Bond producers found themselves up against a streamlined bad-ass action hero like Jason Bourne who let’s face it, made James Bond (from the more recent films – Connery excluded of course) look like a big wuss who needs electronic gadgets and a cool car to do everything for him. Hence, the refresh that came with 2006’s CASINO ROYALE that traded in a tired Pierce Brosnan for a younger, tougher, scrappier Daniel Craig who although he still has the cool car, and a couple of gadgets to aid him, is a lot more physical than Brosnan, Timothy Dalton and especially Roger Moore ever were. Oh yeah, anyone else noticed...James Bond, Jason Bourne...both J.B.'s? Coincidence? I wonder....

The BOURNE films have taken the spy film to a whole new stratosphere and this given that essentially, these films all have the same elements -- the CIA seeks Bourne, Bourne seeks answers, Bourne gets in nasty fights and 1 huge set-piece car chase, and by the end has the CIA on their knees with a sea of corpses left in his wake – the producers and director know how to mold the formula each time so it feels fresh and exciting. It probably helps that Paul Greengrass who directed one of my favorite films from last year, UNITED 93, directed the last 2 films, and look at the solid cast surrounding Damon – Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, all super-talented character actors who in many cases can often out-act the major star they are supporting. As much as I wouldn’t want to mess with Jason Bourne, I also would not want to go head-to-head with Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy (great name by the way) who is tough as nails, doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants, and compared to her other CIA cohorts, is a little more honest and on-the-ball. Take all this and mix it with fast moving, state of the art camera work which doesn’t allow the audience to rest for a minute, but still manages to keep us into the action without wearing us out, and you’ve got one of those rare occurrences where all 3 in a series of films are great movies. Funny though, looking back at the first film, the car chase in that seems slow now compared to the insane Moscow one that ends SUPREMACY and the out-of-control New York chase highlighted in ULTIMATUM where no car is safe from being totaled.

What these films do though is show the CIA as a highly mobilized super organization that can find anything or anyone (everyone except Bourne that is) within seconds just by making a call or two, or hitting a few keys on a computer. I often wonder in all those scenes in “war” rooms that are filled with the sounds of rapid computer typing and phones ringing off the hook, what are all these people typing so frantically about all this time, and who keeps calling in. Or when a CIA or spy leader calls for a tail or a hit, how that operative or operatives is able to suddenly appear behind the target and blend in with the surroundings so easily and quickly. Are there rooms all around the world where spies just sit around waiting to be called to jump into action at a moment’s notice? What happens if a hit man gets stuck in heavy traffic and can’t make the target’s location on time? Also, these organizations seem to be so well staffed and their equipment such as tracking devices and cell phones, seem to always work without a hitch – and they always seem to be able to access a security camera anywhere they need to. Computers never crash, phones never die and everything is there when and where they need it – I’m sure they must get tired lugging all this equipment around all the time – they need a utility belt like Batman (although Bourne doesn’t need any of this, which makes him stand out even more). Are their cell phones not subject to the drop out that we regular Joes suffer from regularly? Are their batteries unlimited? And how is it when they go to make a call, the intended person is always available, especially since most of these people as high ranking as they are probably have a lot of meetings and work long hours making them not so easy to reach. In THE BOURNE IDENTITY, Damon asks Chris Cooper (who is in the United States) to be at a certain place at 5:30 that day to meet him in Paris. The sun is up behind Damon meaning that he is probably making the call in the morning, and somehow Cooper is able to get to the airport immediately, get on a plane and still somehow cross the Atlantic on what is a multi-hour flight (to a time zone that is well ahead of where he is traveling from) and get to the spot on time. Then there is what I call the movie-internet syndrome. Anytime a spy or movie hacker looks something up on a computer, somehow with only a few key strokes they are able to access elaborate websites and information or hack into government installations without a hiccup or being traced. They can go into chat rooms whenever and find who they are looking for without ever having to wait or look around for them. I’ve never had such luck with Google, MSN, AOL or yahoo, and the sites I get aren’t as slick and are usually clogged with pop-ups, nor are the chat rooms as smart as they are usually packed with people seeking or pedaling cyber sex. One of the problems I had with LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is the ease at which the hackers can get into any computer system without breaking a sweat. Somehow, Tim Olyphant is able to remotely control Kevin Smith’s personal web-cam – is that even possible? But hey, these are minor things that I usually don’t think of until well after viewing the film, or during repeated viewings, and oh yeah, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is a really bad example as it is an incredibly stupid movie. This is where the whole suspension of disbelief comes into play, and with movies crafted as well as the BOURNE films are, all these things are easily overlooked and forgiven unlike DIE HARD 4 where I hold them against it.

An interesting night of viewing would be to watch one or all of the BOURNE movies along with THE GOOD SHEPHERD. Unlike his character of Jason Bourne, Damon’s Edward Wilson from THE GOOD SHEPHERD I don’t think ever even picks up a gun. Here is a movie that shows the dull side of the spy world filled with a lot of waiting around, reading of files and a whole lot of bureaucracy – probably a lot more how it actually is. THE GOOD SHEPHERD was also on my top 10 list from last year (scroll down, you should find that list on this blog somewhere). This film represents the complete opposite of what the BOURNE films are, thoughtful and introspective whereas although Bourne is a really well fleshed out character, he’s helped along by the crazy car chases and super-fast hand-to-hand combat that seem to lurk behind every corner. Ironically enough, Chris Cooper is in a spy movie this year as well, BREACH where he plays a turncoat agent selling secrets to the Russians. So far, BREACH is one of my favorite films of the year and could (unless others come along to bump it off) make my top 10 of 2007 – in other words, rent it now, it’s on DVD.

As I have been typing this, I just received the daily box-office report from Variety showing that THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM on this its opening weekend, earned around $70 million (it was estimated to get maybe $60) and has broken all previous August opening weekend records, and has already out-performed the previous 2 BOURNE movie openings ($27 million and $52 million respectively) and every single James Bond film including CASINO ROYALE (which opened in the low $40s last November). My guess is that Universal will find a way to bring Bourne back even though there are only 3 books, just like Bond has been able to do since all the Fleming books have now been covered (LICENSE TO KILL, GOLDENEYE, TOMORROW NEVER DIES, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH and DIE ANOTHER DAY are all original screenplays, and not based on Fleming Bond novels or short stories). And the critics say the cinema is dead. I think the box office this summer starting with SPIDER-MAN 3 in May and continued with TRANSFORMERS, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE and now BOURNE shows that people will still go to their local multiplex and plop down $8-$15 for a few hours of big screen entertainment.