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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I have always looked at the Jason Bourne series as the little franchise that could. I do not mean that in a bad way. Honestly, who would have thought ten years ago an action movie starring Matt Damon would have grown into a nearly billion dollar series? Keep in mind, this a time where Damon was known for either his dramatic roles or participation in Kevin Smith films. He as a much unexpected choice for an action star (then again, would not you want someone unassuming as a spy?).
I also think that this is the little franchise that could due to its humble beginnings. Though the later sequels would be known for their over-edited action sequences (which has since gone on to become a Hollywood cliché), 2002’s The Bourne Identity is the complete opposite of what the series will be eventually thought of. It is much quieter and primarily focused on character development. The action scenes are very low-key.
Despite a solid cast consisting of Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Julia Styles (whatever happened to her anyway?) and a promising premise, this film never worked for me. It is slow, the plot is meandering, and the ultimate resolution left me with a “so what?” feeling. However, I was in the minority as the film connected with audiences. It was a modest hit when compared to other summer blockbusters, but due to The Bourne Identity’s low budget, it turned a huge profit for Universal.
This success eventually led to 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy (and Paul Greengrass as director). Having not enjoyed the first film, I had zero interest in the sequel. However, having heard extremely positive things including an intense well-produced car chase sequence (something I can be a bit of a sucker for), I decided to rent the DVD in the summer of ’05. The film completely drew me in. It had an engaging mystery that expanded on the events of the first movie without trying too hard with being “bigger and better”. Everything just felt natural. Plus, the movie is extremely bold with its risk taking (such as shockingly killing off the love interest of the first movie and not replacing her). The Bourne Supremacy added Joan Allen to the mix as Bourne’s quasi-ally and featured a still-little known Karl Urban* as a pretty badass assassin.
Amusing aside: When I watched this movie for the first time, the DVD copy I rented became unplayable about two-thirds of the way though. I was so into the film, I ran out to the video store at 10:30pm to get the only remaining – VHS – copy so I could finish the film.
Then in 2007, The Bourne Ultimatum was released in theaters. This is arguably the best of the lot. The film does a great job in wrapping up most of the loose ends left in the Bourne series to this point (including several homages to past sequences). Granted, some of the explanation is a bit too convoluted and there were times the film seemed to be spinning its wheels. However, what really makes me appreciate this movie is that it actually takes place during the previous film. Normally, this would not be worth noting, but what makes it stand out is that Ultimatum does a very careful job in not letting the audience know this minor twist until two-thirds in (when scenes from the second movie are revisited [now with a new context]). I really, really liked that they did this.
Now, Jason Bourne is set to return in the form of Jermey Renner (who has been in every major motion picture this year it seems) in this week’s The Bourne Legacy. From the little I know (I have been staying largely away from spoilers), this is not a reboot of the series, but more of a spin-off. I guess they want to leave the option for Matt Damon to return eventually. Will it succeed? I am going to guess it probably will. If I were to guess, I think part of the success of these movies has been the practical nature in which they are filmed. They are not like James Bond movies where we see explosions and over-the-top stunts every fifteen minutes, nor are they heavy with CGI special effects. They feel gritty and “real”. There is an old-school quality about them that people connect with even if they do not realize it. Throw in a solid enough mystery with some neat twists and you got something great.
*Yes, I realize that Urban had appeared in Return of the King in 2003, but he was not the household name he somewhat is today.