Why You Should Rewatch the 'Bourne' Series

It's time another entry in my column, Why You Should Be Watching... I use these posts to offer my humble suggestions to you, O my readers, on how to make your movie and TV watching more enjoyable. Today, the topic is the Bourne trilogy, based loosely on the novels of the same name by Robert Ludlum. These three movies number among my favourite films of all time – they are a rare example of big-budget Hollywood action flicks that are incredibly smart and exciting at the same time.

Read on for more on this series, including my thoughts on the directing, cinematography and writing. I’m also going to talk about a little-known connection between the Bourne movies and Gothic literature, and comment on the movies’ accuracy to the novels. Keep a level head, soldier, and push on past the break!

The story revolves around a man named Jason Bourne, who is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea with two bullets in his back and a device carrying a Swiss bank account number implanted in his hip. He has psychogenic amnesia, and cannot remember who he is – but as clues start to surface, he becomes increasingly afraid of who he might be. Amongst his talents are impressive hand-to-hand combat skills, a strong familiarity with weapons, and the ability to speak a wide variety of languages.

Bourne soon finds out that he was an assassin with the CIA - an operative brainwashed by a clandestine government program. Bourne embarks on a whirlwind journey across Europe, tracking down his employers in an effort to get back his memory and stay alive. That mission stretches across all three films in a great example of serial storytelling.

It might sound like a standard spy-themed action/thriller, but the beauty of this series is in its execution. The first film was directed by Doug Liman and the second two were helmed by Paul Greengrass. The directors conceived a huge range of heart-pumping action sequences, including some of the best foot and car chases on film – the chase in the streets of Paris in The Bourne Identity (with Bourne and companion Marie Kreutz in an old-model Mini) is a condensed package of awesome. Liman and Greengrass also did a fantastic job with the quieter, tenser scenes where Bourne is observing his targets or outwitting his pursuers.

The films are shot in a gritty, realistic way, with lots of handheld framing and a harsh colour palette that suits the subject matter. The handheld shots in The Bourne Ultimatum were criticized for being too shaky, but I think it accentuates the rising stakes of Bourne’s situation. It also communicates that this is not a film that glorifies the action like in a Michael Bay flick – the action is a necessary occurrence in the story, and the framing of the camera reflects that.

Bourne’s intelligence is one of the best elements of these films. His brutal CIA training (including repeated waterboarding) has led him to inherently know how to operate in any situation, even though he doesn’t remember his real name (before he became “Jason Bourne”). He is fluent in French, German, Spanish and Russian (and likely more besides). Bourne is an experienced tactical driver, gifted in the use of technology and has the knack of disappearing into a crowd. In the third film, he offhandedly reveals that he memorized the ferry schedule between Madrid, Spain and Tangier, Morocco at some point. He uses this mental advantage to constantly be five to ten steps ahead of the CIA and the local police forces, who are trying to bring Bourne in and avoid retribution for losing control of such a dangerous operative.

The screenplays were penned by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity) and were adapted from the aforementioned Ludlum books. Since the Bourne films are technically an adaptation, people are bound to make comparisons between the two media. As I argued in a recent article here on the blog, these movies are an example of a series where the movies and the books are great for entirely different reasons.

The novels and movies have divergent stories; they are set in separate time periods, with drastically different tech (the films take the modern perspective, with Internet searching, cellphones and GPS). The Bourne character in the books is far more complex than the movie version, with a history as a family man and Far East scholar. Nevertheless, the movies preserve all the exotic locales and high-stakes intelligence-gathering that make the books so great, all while taking the characters in a brand new direction.

One dimension of these films that I hit upon a few years ago was its striking similarity to a bastion of Gothic literature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I know – not the most obvious connection, but bear with me. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Bourne is “created” by the CIA, with a goal to do good. The “monster” is set free into the world, but the creator loses control, and the creation is seemingly lost. After the creator (still the CIA) loses hope of recovering their creation, the monster awakens and remembers who he is, and sets out on a violent quest to destroy its maker.

If you’re familiar with Frankenstein, you’ll know that this is basic plot of that novel. Cool, right? I don’t know if this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but it gives the movies another touchstone in literature beyond its direct source material. It actually has implications on philosophical thought about human nature – but I won’t get into that in this post. If you’d like me to take that up in a future article, let me know!

These movies get my recommendation for all these reasons (and more that I can’t fit in this post!), and I hope some of you who haven’t seen the films will check them out. They are a solid instance of blockbuster action with a brain, something you won’t feel guilty about watching – they demand three or four viewings to fully appreciate.

Have you experienced the Bourne series? What are your favourite moments? If you haven’t seen it, did my glowing appraisal grab your attention? Leave a comment below, and hit that “like” button – or share the article around using the social networking buttons! Also, check back tomorrow for my review of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides!