Recently, Melinda revealed to me she had never seen the Bourne Trilogy, the film adaptations of the assassin action novels by Robert Ludlum that starred Matt Damon as the amnesiac black ops killer. They hit theatres 13 years ago with The Bourne Identity and followed with The Bourne Supremacy and the Bourne Ultimatum. I was excited to revisit the films with her because they comprise, for me, the best film trilogy to exist.
Now, opinions are like Star Wars Kenner action figures. Everyone has had at least one, and aside from debates between brain surgeons and drummers on the best method for a lobotomy, opinions aren’t worth much to anyone except the person who formed them. However, opinions can be a valuable tool for self-reflection. Understanding how you form the opinions you have, and why they might change over time, is a useful exercise that can reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of your character.
My opinion on the Bourne Trilogy was quite an unexpected one when the series came to a conclusion in 2007. For the better part of my life, I had zealously asserted that the Star Wars Trilogy was the best film trilogy of all time. I carried that torch even in the dark years of the late 80s and early 90s when the series was all but dead. Even in 1999, when Phantom Menace revealed the glaring chink in Star Wars’ armour, I remained firm that it was an anomaly and that the original Star Wars Trilogy (despite the Ewoks and the Leia/sister thing) was the best triad of films that told a continuous story.
In 2002, two events brought that granite opinion toppling to the ground. For one, I saw Attack of the Clones at the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood and it was jaw-dropping in its awfulness. When asked by friends upon exiting the theater, I simply said, “Star Wars is dead,” and walked to my car.
That December, I saw The Two Towers, the second part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, and while the trilogy had not wrapped yet, it planted the seed in my mind that would begin to redefine the idea of what makes a perfect film trilogy. Coincidentally, I also saw The Bourne Identity that same year, and enjoyed it a lot, but that film was a standalone spy actioner… or so I thought.
By the time Return of the King bowed in 2003, I’d had time to mull things over, and I’d done some serious research into the development of Star Wars’ story development post-Empire Strikes Back, so I pulled the Star Wars Trilogy off the top spot and elevated The Lord of the Rings to king of the hill.
Lord of the Rings told a consistently good story, with characters that had arcs of development across all three films. Star Wars was still extremely good, but there were places in the third installment where corners were cut from a writing perspective, as well as unexplained tonal shifts.
This isn’t to say Lord of the Rings was a perfect bag either.
As with the Star Wars Trilogy, the third installment contains some problems, but they are fewer in nature. Tonally, the film is consistent with the previous two, which is very important. However, the film did descend into empty spectacle in places, felt bloated with the four endings, and created two logic loops that cannot be ignored: the eagles and the undead army, two potential deus ex machine devices that are mysteriously unused by the heroes to their fullest extent (albeit this is also a problem in the book).
But in 2004, The Bourne Supremacy landed and I learned that the Damon-led film from 2002 would be a trilogy. However, I wasn’t initially sold. I walked away from Bourne Supremacy loving the continuation of the story, but in loathing for the visual style of the action scenes. Director Doug Liman was not retained by the studio for the sequel and they instead hired Paul Greengrass.
The result? Great storytelling, great pacing, but a mixed bag in regard to the camera work. Greengrass was in love with shaky camera visuals to a point that the key action scenes were obscured by frenetic camera work. The saving grace was the immense strength of the script and the tonal consistency with the previous film. Supremacy expanded the landscape of the series, deepened the characters and set up the potential for an edge of your seat final chapter.
Even at this point though, I still didn’t see an unrivaled trilogy emerging in my own mind. Partly because I didn’t want to get sick again watching Greengrass’ super shaky cam. If I was a betting man, I’d say Greengrass was given similar notes.
The Bourne Ultimatum dialed back the “on-meth” shaky cam from Supremacy to a Jolt Cola level so we could at least see what’s going on during action scenes and get caught up in the situation. But that’s not where the final chapter’s strength lies. Yes, the writing is just as tight, the suspense is nothing short of masterful, and the movie is truly a cinematic page turner.
However, Ultimatum achieves what so few third installments never dare to do – it dovetails Bourne’s own quest for answers (and vengeance) with a new black ops establishment, mentioned only once at the end of the first film, irrelevant to the story of Supremacy, only to become the unexpected focus for Bourne in Ultimatum. The third film is not simply a two hour wrap-up of the problems setup in previous installments, but a chapter with new challenges and discoveries as well as new characters, settings and shifting dynamics.
The Bourne series becomes a true continuous story. One that never panders to the audience, nor to the studio heads that continually wanted bigger action finishes. The characters are well-developed, the action is smaller, focused and restrained to maintain some modicum of plausibility. This is not Die Hard or The Rock. This series plays like a 21st Century, Euro version of First Blood with even fewer explosions but a no-less troubled trained killer.
I walked out of Bourne Ultimatum and thought, “That’s the best-written film trilogy I’ve ever seen.”
If there’s one weakness to the Bourne Trilogy (aside from the visual style misfire of Supremacy), it’s the fact that the films don’t appear to take close inventory of the characters that move in and out of the story. For example, by the end of the second film, we’ve lost all our notable villains, so in the third and final film, a new host of corrupt CIA masterminds are put into play, people we’ve never met before.
Chris Cooper and Brian Cox give way to David Strathairn and Scott Glenn. The former were the heads of the Treadstone assassin program, with Cox launching Blackbriar to a congressional committee at the end of Bourne Identity. We’re led to believe Cox’s character is the mastermind of these programs. Ultimatum shows us the corruption goes higher and farther than that.
At the end of Identity, Bourne and a killer called Manheim are the last Treadstone assassins alive. In Supremacy, a different actor plays a Treadstone killer named Jarda and claims he’s the last Treadstone assassin. It’s a little confusing. So he’s either Manheim going under another name (and played by a different actor), or he’s actually the last guy and Manheim died between Identity and Supremacy. I guess it’s not important (but it still bugs me).
Otherwise, all of the character dynamics are extremely strong. Both the male and female roles are evenly written, with little to zero sexist inference. All of the characters are treated as simply that, characters. It’s a nice change of pace.
I want to be clear about something. Taken individually, these films are good, but they don’t rate in my top ten or even top twenty. For me, The Empire Strikes Back, Lawrence of Arabia, Rear Window and handful of others claim the top spots. These I’ve mentioned are perfect films on their own merits. Perfect scripts with great characters, compelling plots, and appropriate pace.
The Bourne series is like Voltron. As separate lions, the films can only accomplish so much. When combined though, the experience for me is an unrivaled trilogy of suspense and revelation.
I didn’t expect it to be that way. They weren’t made in the 1980s and they weren’t sci-fi/fantasy or World War II, so they were unlikely candidates in that regard. But they succeeded in leveling up what I expect from a movie trilogy.
The Bourne Trilogy is smart, *very* smart. Rarely does it rely on the same tricks each time. It takes unexpected turns that aren’t contrived twists, just exciting swerves, and it respects its audience *and itself* across three films.
Just stop shaking that camera around, Paul…