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THE BOURNE TRILOGY: The Bourne Identity (2002) -vs- The Bourne Supremacy (2004) -vs- The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Beau DeMayoThe Smackdown

This Tuesday, The Bourne Trilogy hits Blu-Ray, taking America’s favorite amnesiac spy to the lovely world of over-sized pores and saturated colors.  Now, we’ve seen how easily Jason Bourne dispatches assassins, but what happens when Bourne fights Bourne?  Which entry stands above the rest as the most exciting and engaging look into a spy facing his past?

The Bourne Identity.  Directed by Doug Liman, “The Bourne Identity” introduces Jason Bourne, an American spy with no recollection of who he is outside of a few scattered fragments.  Matt Damon is a sympathetic lead, handling both the intense sped-up action and the vulnerability of a man on the run.  Setting up a new spy formula, “The Bourne Identity” introduced moviegoers to the whirlwind treachery of double-dealing spies, black-op assassinations, and agent grooming.

The Bourne Supremacy

“The Bourne Supremacy” upturns Jason Bourne’s life with the death of his only love, Marie, and chronicles his intense, shaky-cam path of vengeance as both the truth of his former self and the reason for Marie’s murder merge to make for an emotional, if humorless, action thriller with stunning action sequences that put many of its peers to shame.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Jason Bourne’s journey concludes in this taught, political thriller which sees Jason Bourne following the trail of Marie’s murder all the way back home, where an international conspiracy to commit unchecked assassinations targets Bourne.   Although very formulaic and cold as far as Bourne movies go, Matt Damon’s last adventure as America’s newest super-spy is fraught with tension, betrayal, and regret.  It’s Tangier chase sequence is among the series finest action moments, and the editing and tight script craft a fitting conclusion to a great series.

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The Scorecard

These Bourne movies all compete on their own level.  However, for the sake of our competition, we’re going to approach these as films that depict a new and revitalizing take on the spy genre and introduces us to a sympathetic character on a journey to rediscover and redeem himself.

“The Bourne Identity” is a great thriller which kicks the franchise off fast and hard.  Damon more than proves himself as an action star, bringing both a seriousness but also child-like innocence to the role as he struggles to discover who he is and what he’s done.  Chris Cooper and Brian Cox make engaging, if somewhat predictable, antagonistic spyrunners who rush around trying to get a grip on the ever-escalating situation of Bourne being alive and without memory.   Sad to say that for a franchise so well-known for its action, the first installment of the series fails to boast any truly riveting or unique action sequences, made worse by the fact that much of Damon’s hand-to-hand combat is sped-up in post production.  Add to this an under-stated climax, and “The Bourne Identity” nearly runs out of steam in it’s final few moments, leaving most of its best action and thrills in the first and second acts.

This isn’t a problem for “The Bourne Supremacy.”  With only half of his memories surfacing, Jason Bourne struggles to stay sane and live a life with his love, Marie.  What’s great here is that from the get-go there is so much at stake for these characters–Marie is in love with a broken man and Bourne is a man with a past that won’t let him go.  Marie’s assassination is a shocking moment in the film, and secures enough emotional sympathy for Bourne to elevate the rest of the film’s action-suspense thriller aspects above the ordinary and into drama.  Bourne is a tortured man out for revenge, something that only comes by diving deeper into a past he no longer wants to know but which never lets him go since it has killed his lover.

Add to this the introduction of Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen.  Unlike the Chris Cooper antagonist from the first film, Joan Allen is an antagonist who has the best intentions and who the audience finds themselves getting behind.  She is a good woman, a good American, and a competent spyrunner who is thrown into a situation that puts her up against the greatest spy, also a man of good intentions.  This provides the audience with dual protagonists–two people who we care about.  The beauty is we can only root for one and this creates an odd sort of moral ambiguity that makes the film’s viscous action sequences, assassinations, and betrayals all the more complex.  It also is a great technique for suspense.

However, “The Bourne Supremacy” cannot be discussed without pointing towards it’s final act, which is perhaps one of the finest-crafted third acts in a recent action movie.  Greengrass works magic here.  At first, Bourne’s fleeing through Moscow seems just another action sequence, necessary for a climax.  However, this is no bother as the action sequence is viscous, testing Bourne’s skills and forcing him into a high-speed death duel with the man who killed Marie.  Yet, what is revealed after the chase has concluded, is that Bourne has come to Moscow, had endured that car chase, in order to apologize–only apologize–to the daughter of his first ever target–to let her know the reason why her parents were killed.  This is beautiful and emotional, and shows a fine example of action plus emotion equals drama and how a set-up can have an unexpected pay-off.  By the film’s end, Bourne is such a noble figure, willing to die just to spare another his pain–just to apologize.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” picks up right where the tense, spinning world of “The Bourne Supremacy” left off.  This time, Bourne himself is the target of a journalist wanting to expose America’s secret assassination program.  Greengrass and Damon continue to add layers to Bourne, as now having lost Marie he is a man desperate to just find out who he is so he can be left alone and move on.  Where “The Bourne Supremacy” was about a man wanting to understand why he lost the one he loved, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is about a man wanting to put those reasons to rest and escape once and for all.

Sadly, “The Bourne Ultimatum” returns to some of the typical choices of the first film, introducing Noah Vosen, an over-the-top Draconian villain hellbent on killing anyone who threatens to expose his assassination program.  Audiences will hate and despise his overt political allegory.  Gone is the nuanced and admirable antagonist of Pamela Landy, who instead becomes a clear-cut ally of Jason Bourne in this film.  Running off the emotion and drama of the second film, Bourne and Landy’s meeting in person and working together is one of the film’s best moments.  The morality of this film is much simpler than the previous films, and the sense of drama and tension suffers as a result.

Also, the action sequences easily tease the border of being more of the same.  Except for an amazing rooftop chase through Tangiers and a brutal close-quarter fight, “The Bourne Supremacy” offers the same quick-cut, fast-edit hand-to-hand car-to-car action that “The Bourne Supremacy” did so well–and in may case, better.

In the end however, in an industry where the third film of a trilogy is the weakest, “The Bourne Ultimatum” has the distinguished pleasure of calling itself better than the first, and nearly as good as the second.

The Decision

It’s a clear throwdown here.  “The Bourne Identity” is destroyed by “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy.”  Paul Greengrass made the series and created a new formula for spy thrillers in modern American movies.  However, when Greengrass’ babies have to fight, it’s a little more viscous.  Both his films are expertly shot and scripted, and the acting in both is above par.  However, “The Bourne Ultimatum” relies too often on the same thrills and chills of its predecssor to actually top it.  Also, the moral ambiguity and the sympathetic antagonist of “The Bourne Supremacy” is far more preferable to the stereotypical evil CIA man of “The Bourne Ultimatum.”   In the end, “The Bourne Supremacy” does more for Bourne’s struggle and ultimately reigns supreme.

3 Comments on THE BOURNE TRILOGY: The Bourne Identity (2002) -vs- The Bourne Supremacy (2004) -vs- The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

  1. Mostly everyone thinks Ultimatum is the best.
    It’s the most heart-pounding and has smarter action sequences. The final chase is probably not as good as the second’s, but the last few seconds and pretty much everything else in the movie is better.
    Just my humble and honest opinion!
    Identity- 9.9/10
    Supremacy- 9.95/10
    Ultimatum- 10/10

  2. One of my favourite spy film series’ gets the Smackdown treatment! YAY!!! I have to say I agree with everything you mentioned in your review, Beau. I too felt ULTIMATUM didn’t capitalise on the magnificent SUPREMACY like it should’ve, and as a result, is an inferior film to the sequel. That said, one thing I really liked about all three films was the continuity of characters and themes (my favourite moment: “Look at what they make you do”) from both IDENTITY and ULTIMATUM, a conundrum for the viewer who must now realise that this kind of battle has been ongoing for society both prior, and after, Jason Bourne came onto the stage. Great review!

  3. I would have to agree with your assessment here. Paul Greengrass shook things up, both literally and storywise, with “The Bourne Supremacy”, taking risks that “The Bourne Identity” didn’t even think about. Kirill (played by Karl Urban) is a wonderful counterpart to Bourne, and while his motivations are often hinted at and not fully revealed, it is not about Kirill, but about Bourne, and his subtle and nuanced quest to find answers for the woman he loved. Subtle moments such as when Bourne is driving in the Alps and looks at a picture of him and Marie touch upon this, and rarely go into the type of melodrama that one would expect from this type of film.
    While I admire “The Bourne Ultimatum”, and I agree that it is much superior to “The Bourne Identity”, I feel like Greengrass copies himself too much in this film. While the Tangiers foot chase is indeed fantastic, too many components are copied: the character of Paz (played by Edgar Ramirez), who feels like a carbon copy of Kirill, without any of the resonance, or the clear visual “homages” to “The Bourne Supremacy” that lose a lot of the effect (Bourne going to kill Paz, but deciding not to…much how he was going to kill Kirill) or the moments that feel copied as well (Bourne reminiscing over Marie on the train, copies the car-ride mourning in “Supremacy”, or the car chase in “Ultimatum” that feels both inferior and the same to the one in “Supremacy”).
    Overall, “The Bourne Supremacy” succeeds partially because of its originality in comparison to “The Bourne Ultimatum”, the risks it took at the time, and quite simply because it is a better film, as more admirably described above.

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