Monday, August 6, 2007

The Bourne Factor

With The Bourne Ultimatum reporting an amazing $70 million take this past weekend, a look into the secret of the Bourne series’ success is due. I mean, what is it exactly about Bourne that keeps the crowds coming back for more? Surely, there is no shortage of spy thrillers or fight movies. No, the marketplace has been inundated with assassins, ninjas, super agents, and the like slicing and dicing, shooting, impaling, pummeling, torching it out since, well, probably the Schwartznegger/Stallone action era. Like Bourne himself, three things set this trilogy apart from the pack: 1) its stripped down, no frills approach; 2) a conscience; and 3) a refusal to compromise with the competition.

1. No Frills – Watching Jason Bourne scrap it out tooth and nail with any of a slew of would-be assassins, one can’t help but feel a certain primal stirring within. A stirring that says, “Man, is this real? Did he just…? I can’t believe he just…! These guys are for real!” In a world of ridiculously stylized fight scenes, the bastard children of the Matrix-wrought martial arts revival, where fighters can remain suspended in the air indefinitely with time to pose, grimace, admire their flowing leather trench coats, and ricochet off each other like racquetballs, everything about the Bourne trilogy takes us so far back that it feels fresh.

I would argue that Bourne takes us back to the brutal reality of our first schoolyard fight, the jarring impact of a real car crash, and the sobering finality of a single bullet meeting its mark. Gone are the slo-mo, bullet time shots, the sneers and one-liners, and the physics-defying wire-fu acrobatics that ultimately separate us from the action. In your face are grown men clawing at each other, trying to strangle the life out of each other, wielding whatever weapon they can get their hands on (a pen, a rolled up magazine, etc.), silent, stone-faced hitmen closing in with trained disregard, all filmed in unnerving, handheld normal speed. No one flies. When people fall, they fall hard. No pounding industrial metal soundtrack here. Just the disturbing sound of bone striking flesh punctuates this fight.

Bourne does the same with car chases. Take Supremacy’s Moscow tunnel car chase, for instance. Slo-mo shots of muscle cars flipping ridiculously through the air and exploding in ridiculously large clouds of orange flame are replaced by claustrophobic hand held shots of junky European mini cars sideswiping and ramming each other into oblivion in a cramped, dark tunnel. Pieces are flying off, most too wildly to be choreographed. The entire scene is an exercise in capturing chaos. And we find ourselves breathing heavily, sweating even in the protected darkness of the theater.

This property is the very essence of what makes action cinema great. It doesn’t fantasize or try to wow us with its next overly stimulating gimmick. It puts us directly into a life-and-death struggle, in all of its excitement, fear, and moral implications, in which we civilians wouldn’t or shouldn’t find ourselves. This is exactly what makes it a transporting medium, a vehicle for greater awareness. This mature, intelligent approach to action is exactly what transforms Bourne into cinema art.

2. Conscience – Even as a moral awakening propels Bourne into his adventures and sets him apart from his hunters, so is a conscience what gives the Bourne series its soul, setting it far apart from its largely amoral or immoral competition. Consider most of our cardboard action heroes. Usually, after finally impaling, incinerating, electrocuting, dismembering, or otherwise dispatching of a foe, the “hero” walks away in slow mo, bad to the bone, flame and wreckage in his wake. We think, “Wow, that’s one bad dude. Those villains had it coming. Serves them right!” But with Bourne, we find ourselves troubled. Every time he has to murder an attacker, Bourne’s disgust and loathing of the deed is plain on his face. He is fully aware of the contradiction that he is: he kills to put killing behind him. He apologizes to the daughter of one of his past kills, painfully aware of the central moral truth that he can’t bring them back. We may gasp and exclaim as he fights for his life, but we find it difficult to celebrate and cackle with delight.

Most other action films have not figured out how to do this. The strategy most follow is to just make the bad guys as despicable and filthy as possible and then the hero can dispose of them with as much blood-soaked relish as needed. They do not consider what such barbarism does to the hero, that it kind of makes him not a hero anymore. For instance, the trailer for the upcoming Rambo update is a classic example of this. A bunch of filthy, third-world rebel military types brutally slaughter a team of humanitarians/missionaries in Southeast Asia. That’s enough for hero John Rambo. So what does he do? He grabs the ol’ hunting knife, drapes himself with bullets, and proceeds to behead, make sloppy joes of, or tear out the larynx from any rebel he runs into. And this is all just in the teaser trailer (seriously, I don’t even want to put a hyperlink out for this trailer). And get ready for more of the same, where revenge and self-determined justice are sufficient to ignore the implications of killing.

So, in this time of war, of casualties adding up on our TV screens on a daily basis, thank goodness for films that acknowledge what an awful, disturbing, arresting thing it is to end a human life, whether good or bad.

3. Refusal to Compromise – While the rest of actiondom is largely stuck in the aforementioned rut, Bourne keeps its artistic vision. Everyone else says, “More bullet time. More special effects. Bigger explosions. More improbable set pieces. More one-liners.” The makers of Bourne say, “No, let’s stay small, personal, in survivor mode. Less dialogue. Tighter tension.”

The good news is, some filmmakers appear to be taking notice. Much ado, for instance, has been made over the recent overhaul of the Bond franchise. It was interesting how, after the success of The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, James Bond suddenly became much more Bourne-like. The story? Smaller, personal, in survivor mode. The usually eloquent, wisecracking Bond was suddenly less talkative, more grunting. The fight scenes had an unmistakable hint of Bourne, much more physical, sloppy, claustrophobic, and- bingo!- no slo-mo. Laughable villains with razor top hats and impervious metal teeth were replaced with steely eyed assassins equipped only with machetes and frighteningly fast hands. Moreover, the new Bond was surprisingly human, romantically attached to one woman, so attached in fact that he was emotionally shaken by her betrayal and then her demise. Critics hailed the move as a genius revival of a flailing franchise. I say they stole a page or two from the Bourne playbook. Not that I’m complaining.

Obviously I think Bourne rocks! I hope we see more like it. What do you all think about Jason Bourne? Love him? Hate him? Who will take his place when he’s gone? Chime in…

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join the conversation! I'm always interested in hearing what visitors have to say.