A good secret agent can give lift to a film franchise and turn it into a multi-billion dollar industry. We have two inside-the-CIA runs going with Bourne and Mission: Impossible,and both have gone into a third installment in the last year. The latest, The Bourne Ultimatum, gives us the ending of the Bourne Identity Trilogy and stars Matt Damon in the title role as Jason Bourne. Last year, it was Mission: Impossible III or M:i:III with Tom Cruise playing the lead character Ethan Hunt. Both take audiences on whirlwind tours of world hotspots where awesome stunts never let you go and intrigue, such as it exists, does so only to serve the action. This all works so long as you care about the person involved in the action. Our question: in the battle to own the CIA franchise who do you trust, Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt? Which actor is more successful in bringing reality to their character? And which franchise should be coming back for more in the future?
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This week I saw the Directors Guild screening of The Bourne Ultimatum at LA’s Pacific Design Center, followed by an hour of Q-and-A with director Paul Greengrass. He talked at length about the challenges of “franchise” films (he also directed The Bourne Supremacy) and how each one has to deliver more sizzle than the last one. His challenge with The Bourne Ultimatum, as he analyzed it, is that the films merge an indie sensibility and global flavor with Hollywood sheen. Bourne films are supposed to look and feel real, or at least more real than the always re-inventing itself James Bond franchise. You don’t see much CGI in this film, it’s real stunts, shot as powerfully as any I’ve seen. In fact, there’s a fight in this film that probably takes two minutes of screen time that is the single best fight I have ever seen and, according to Greengrass, they spent five entire days shooting it. It shows. So, too, does the director’s concept that this will not be a movie that stops for character scenes in between action scenes. Every scene (almost) is framed in action. It’s exhausting and exhilirating to watch. But there are also times (especially after the film is over and you’re walking to your car) where you start to question the logic behind the story — something you had no time to consider in the slam-bang action you’ve been watching. One thing the film sets out to do, and accomplishes, is telling the viewers who Jason Bourne really is, and how he got to be who he is.
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The Defending Champion
Like the challenger in our Smackdown, M:i:III largely exists as a vehicle to string along an audience that has already shelled out many millions of dollars for the first two installments. Even though it may not have been apparent to all viewers, this third film is actually the best of the bunch. The first one was so amazingly opaque about who’s doing what and why that I’m convinced it only succeeded because of the ultra-recognizable theme song and the fact that Tom Cruise in a movie promised the audience that money had been spent to make a grand piece of entertainment. Even though it is unevenly handled, M:i:III attempts to give the Hunt character some new dimension, showing us who he is when he’s off duty, namely a guy who is conning his sweet girlfriend nurse Julia by telling her he’s a traffic control engineer. This film puts not only Ethan’s friends in jeopardy, but also his woman, something that is hardly heroic, but in the fast-pace of the film almost possible to ignore because it gives him a rock-solid reason to endure any pain and keep on fighting. Hunt, however, never quite knows what he’s fighting for — it’s something called the “Rabbit’s Foot” and everyone knows it’s important — but it’s never really spelled out. Still, director J.J. Abrams puts the pedal to the metal here, spins out non-stop action with lots of special effects, and everything is done to a degree of technical perfection that leaves no complaints.
Matt Damon has made his portrayal of Jason Bourne his signature role in his career so far. Tom Cruise has done the opposite. He was probably more accepted as Ethan Hunt in the first film but as his real-life persona has zigged and zagged his reality in the films wanes further with each new chapter.
Not that either film is very real at all, but there’s no doubt that the gritty, hard-charging Bourne films feel more real than the latex-mask gimmick approach of Mission: Impossible. Feeling real, however, is important to the experience and when you actually compare what you’re getting here in a head-to-head fight, Bourne beats Hunt.
The two trilogies we have in the ring together have given themselves much different marching orders. The Mission: Impossible films are about giving Ethan Hunt a James Bondian-villain and problem to overcome, and to let him be seen as a super-agent and the only good guy standing between us and world destruction. Like Bond. Bourne, on the other hand, is a guy who’s been messed with who’s taking it personally. He’s not on any mission at all for the Agency, except to kick the asses of the people who’ve done this to him. The three Bourne movies are all telling the same story with many of the same characters. Hunt, on the other hand, is a brand-new set-up each time.
If the question is where do these franchises go from here, the one with the clearer answer is Mission: Impossible. Tom Cruise will simply saddle up again and go to extremes to stop another bad guy from doing something really nefarious. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, however, has exhausted his first agenda now that he knows how he got to be who he is and taken revenge on the people who did it. Since those people worked for the CIA, it’s not going to be easy for him to grab another mission from the Agency. He will need to find another motivation. Still, the energy and the excitment are with him, and the wind is at the back of the Bourne franchise while it’s coming out of the Mission franchise. The winner here has to be this pulsating, adrenaline-infused third part, The Bourne Ultimatum. It’s a ride you simply will have to take.