Friday, 17 August 2018

Day 111: Re-Bourne

Well, after watching the execrable Jason Bourne the other day, I couldn't resist going back to the beginning of the series to see whether 2002's The Bourne Identity actually had anything going for it, or whether it was just nostalgia clouding my judgement...

And Holy Damon, is this film a good 'un! It's a mainstream thriller but with indie sensibilities, invigorating and energetic, assured in its storytelling, grounded in character and emotion.

Looking fresh faced, still with the wiriness of youth, Matt Damon plays Bourne with a wounded vulnerability that juxtaposes nicely with the efficiency and brutality of his instinctive actions. The amnesia plot device is inspired, taking the idea of the macho, walking weapon that is the archetypal movie secret agent, and making that all the stuff that Bourne has no control over. He can't help knowing how to fight and how to scan a room in half a second flat for potential threats, that's just something that happens without him meaning it to - but who he actually is, who he chooses to be, from the beginning of the film when he's dredged up onto a fishing trawler with bullets in his back and no memory, is someone caring, sensitive, and easy for the audience to relate to.

By shearing the constructed amalgamation of Bourne's personality from his present moment existence, the film turns its protagonist's search for answers into an almost existential question - can we be defined as the sum total of everything we've previously done, or do we exist somewhere deeper than this? Is Bourne weighed down by the baggage of the person he's been, or was he effectively born (or, yes, sigh, Bourne) anew in that tempestuous ocean at the film's outset?

It's this question that provides the film with its emotional heart, as well as acting as a natty technique for ensuring the audience are firmly in Bourne's shoes, discovering the story at the same exact pace as Bourne himself.

In this regard Damon is the perfect fit, a supremely likeable everyman finding himself endowed with superhuman abilities, not unlike Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker in the Spider-Man film released the same year as this. Filled with turmoil and confusion, yet possessed of preternatural strength and control over his environment when danger dictates it, Damon pulls off both with aplomb.

Franka Potente as Marie, the drifting and rootless young adult caught up in Bourne's mess, is wonderful as well, strong willed and imbued with agency, yet fragile, overwhelmed, shocked by the violence, providing the necessary balance to Bourne's flattened affect in extreme situations.

It's not rocket science but it's insane how often films get this stuff wrong. You can turn the noise and the bombast up as high as you like, but it's not going to work unless you have relatable and believable main characters to whom the story's events can happen.

Here we care about Bourne and Marie, and so even small moments matter when their safety is put on the line. This is coupled with a solid script and excellent direction from Doug Liman, coming off the indie hits Swingers and Go. There's a feeling of realism that helps centre the tension, helps elevate scenes that might otherwise be formulaic.

So like as an example, early on Bourne has just been to a bank in Zurich and found a lockbox under his name with loads of passports, money in various currencies, and a pistol. Exiting the bank, keyed up from this discovery, wondering who the hell he is, he notices he has caught the attention somehow of local authorities. A traffic warden across the street is paying him attention. Bourne immediately moves off in the other direction. As he turns the corner two police officers step out in front of him. But they're only on patrol, and not after him, although they turn to stare as he walks away. A siren suddenly wails. But it's just an ambulance passing. Bourne paces on. Two more officers coming towards him, and, without breaking stride, direct and full of purpose, Bourne steps across the path of an approaching tram, which barely misses him, putting distance between him and the officers. Bourne glances back. The officers are following, receiving instructions on their radios. Shit. Bourne pushes forwards, but two cop cars come wailing down the road from the direction he's walking. Panic. Bourne looks about. Spots an American flag. A US embassy. Before thinking his US passport is in his hand, he raises it to the guard on the gate, and he's inside, just as the Swiss police behind are stopped by the same guard ("Hold it. Wait. You've got no jurisdiction here."). But out of the frying pan, into the fire...

It's a strong scene, taut and tense, and it works despite its simplicity because we're invested. You don't need rooftop motorbike chases and crashing through windows this early on; we empathise with the character and at this stage it's stressful enough imagining being alone in a foreign city not knowing who you are and suddenly finding the police following you.

Oof, it's so late at night, once again, I desperately need bed.

What else, quickly?

The film looks gorgeous, overcast skies and sombre streets, a film of muted colours, with a palpable connection to the physical world, to tin coffee cups and coils of rope, to peeling paint and rusted metal, to beat up old Minis and ageing shotguns, to neon hotels hidden away down winding Parisian backstreets. The cinematography is great, and the visual storytelling is so assured as well, showing much with the elegance of simple match cuts and the continuation of lines of motion.

Its final act is rushed, tying up the complex threads too easily, with a ludicrous and too-willfully-violent escape from Bourne to cap it off.

I love Clive Owen's character as a rival assassin on Bourne's trail throughout the film. Culminates in a set piece at a farmhouse full of tension that instead of providing the drawn-out fight we're expecting suddenly explodes into a clash that is short-lived and messy and utterly lacking in glamour, exactly as I suppose it would be.

The relationship between Bourne and Marie is tender, heartfelt, well observed. Too often the quieter moments in Hollywood films feel like generic filler, like placeholder scenes that weren't important enough to be replaced, whereas here they're approached with the same care and attention that is brought to every scene, and they are successful because of it. The intimacy of the love scene, all glances and gentle initiating contact, with the camera pulling away as the two finally embrace, retreating out of the room, then out of the hotel, down the street, leaving it all behind as the neon flashes and the night hums in silence and we fade to black - man, it's a really nice moment, that.

And so that's Bourne Identity. A Hollywood blockbuster that's smart and believable and cool as all hell, liberal leaning in its politics, focused on character rather than bombast, asking subtle questions about the nature of personality, yet taut and thrilling all the same.

I wonder what the second one is like...

1 comment:

  1. Aaah, that was the nicest Bourne memory. Thanks Rob. Boy, what a film it was.