Ladies and gentlemen, without no doubt, these are the JBs!

“I think LL Cool J and Canibus are both fantastic!” – MC Paul Barman

Over the past week I watched, for the first time, Quantum of Solace, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. (Yes, it was an action-packed week for me, courtesy of Netflix and numerous interminable Long Island Rail Road delays.)

* I can see why the makers and stars of the Bourne movies might want to slag on nu-Bond, but I don’t understand why viewers and critics give into this weird Beatles/Stones, Blur/Oasis artificial rivalry. While it’s true that I watched both Daniel Craig James Bond movies before any of the Bourne films, even in retrospect I don’t see what the former directly owe to the latter, really. Frenetically filmed action sequences and using the supposed “good guys” as bad guys aren’t trademarkable, I don’t think; they certainly didn’t originate with Bourne.

* Regarding those action sequences, I’ve read enough about the Bourne films’ supposedly borderline-experimental use of “shakicam,” both pro and con, to have me half-convinced I was signing up for Stan Brakhage Does an Action Franchise. I was prepared to be convinced that making your fights and chases unintelligible conveys savagery and emotional turmoil, but fortunately i never had to be, since everything was perfectly, rather beautifully easy to follow in all three Bourne films, including the two Paul Greengrass-directed sequels that tend to be singled out for this. Anyone who’s watched Christopher Nolan’s woeful Batman Begins knows what an unintelligible fight scene or chase seen looks like, and the Bourne movies’ balletic, claustrophobic martial arts slobbernockers, ruthlessly efficient redshirt-cop takedowns, and meticulously chaotic car and foot chases are nothing of the sort. (Neither, for that matter, were any of the throwdowns in Quantum of Solace that were supposed to be so Bourne-indebted as to be embarrassing.)

* There is a pretty obvious difference between the two franchises: Bourne strives to keep everything both real and “unconsidered,” as Greengrass states in the special features, meaning he aims for realism in plot, setting, and mise en scène alike. As de-cheesified as the Bond movies have gotten, however, they’re still recognizably Bond movies, creatures of a heightened, high-tech, glamorous “reality.” Q and his gadgets may be gone, Bond may be spending less time cracking single-entendre quips with Miss Moneypenny and more time murdering people in the Third World, but there are still stunning women, stunning menswear, stunning hotels and beaches and casinos and villas and whatnot, and stunning shots of all of the above. Joan Allen aside, Bourne doesn’t do stunning. I think both styles work for their respective franchises. I mean, obviously it’d be goofy of someone who had as much fun with GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough as I did to suddenly insist that Bond be played like The Battle of Algiers. My point is that I greatly enjoy the mainline injection of “realism” the Bond movies have received at least in part because of how it plays off of the traditional Bond business. It adds a sense of stakes, and an anchor for the flights of fancy if you will.

* Another obvious difference, at least as the respective series go by, is that Bourne is a reluctant killer while Bond is fairly enthusiastic about it. To a fault, in Quantum of Solace’s case. The storyline of the Daniel Craig Bond movies has James Bond driven to become more of what he is in response to the death of a loved one, while Jason Bourne is driven to become less of what he is under similar circumstances. Eventually Bond puts the breaks on when faced with just how little solace straight-out vengeance would afford him, but basically, he doesn’t give a damn, while Bourne gives a damn deeply. Maybe that attitude is why the Bond movies are still recognizably Bond movies.

* One virtue shared by both the Bond and Bourne characters in these movies is physical genius. What these men do with their bodies is the combat equivalent of lateral thinking, a sort of instinct resting somewhere in their muscle tissue or something that enables them to almost always be three or four steps ahead of where our feeble audience brains have us in any given fight scene or chase sequence (let alone the bodies of their antagonists). Anticipating the needs of the battle in five seconds or ten seconds and doing what’s required to be on top at that juncture–that’s the stuff of the action scenes in these movies. Think of Bourne’s precision takedowns of countless cops and intelligence officers, or how you’ll see him grab objects during a chase (a bottle of vodka, shirts hanging to dry on clotheslines) for god knows what reason only to use them in just the right way (spitting the vodka in the face of a policeman to blind him, wrapping the shirts around his hands so he can vault off a glass-shard-lined wall). Think of Bond using the fact that his plane is mortally wounded to out-fly the pilots sent to shoot him down, or how he uses a combination of split-second decision making and brute force to out-chase that bomber in the construction site and embassy. It’s really remarkable how well done this is in both franchises, ginning up a sort of wide-eyed admiration among viewers. (Well, among me, at least.)

* Similarly, these movies are very much about Bond and Bourne outwitting antagonists with vastly superior numbers and resources. Particularly in the Greengrass Bournes, a real point is made to show Jason making monkeys out of the CIA goons who are tracking him. By the third film, the degree to which Bourne puts himself at risk in order to send a message that amounts to “PWND!!1!!” actually gets a little distracting, or it would if it weren’t so damned entertaining. Bond behaves in much the same way–I can’t be the only person who laughed out loud when he barged in on Quantum’s opera-house conference call. But in that case he did it for a reason, to flush the members of the group out of hiding and take photos of them. Ultimately, though, the point in both films is just that having the underdog make the overdogs look like outclassed nincompoops is a lot of fun.

* Regarding the Bourne movies, each one has something going on that’s a little bit pat. In Identity, it’s the simplicity of the “he stopped wanting to be an assassin because his target had kids with him” reveal. In Supremacy, it’s the coincidence of Bourne’s mysterious dreams being directly related to why people are after him, and it’s the woman-in-refrigerator bit with Marie, though I’ll grant it was beautifully shot and returned to on a consistent and emotionally true basis throughout the rest of the movies. And in Ultimatum, it’s the return to the mysterious-flashback well literally still in the middle of the events of the previous movie (revisited with fill-in-the-gaps material), and it’s the hambone supervillain psychiatrist played by whatsisname. But in each case this is all offset by the films’ strengths, most of which lie in their willingness to be openly emotional and even troubling. Many times, Bourne and his ersatz allies fail to save the people we want to see him save–in Marie’s case it was easy to see coming, but damn if that journalist in Ultimatum wasn’t a punch to the solar plexus. Bourne’s mano a manos with fellow assassins nearly always have the feel of “domestic violence,” as Greengrass describes that fight in the kitchen in Supremacy; they’re intimate and unpleasant even as they’re thrilling. I thought Bourne’s apology tour with the daughter of the assassinated Russian reformer and the brother of Marie was a refreshingly strange and uncategorizable addition to the films. Obviously, and especially by film three, the bad guy is basically the U.S. government; it’s tough to watch a guy in a government building order the murder of a journalist. And on a fundamental level, Bourne himself is really up against it–as we learn in the final film, it really was his choice to become a monster, and watching him try, well, not so much to redeem himself as to form an account of why he did what he did has to resonate with any of us who’ve said or done things we wish we could un-say or un-do but know we have no way of doing so.

* Perhaps where the Daniel Craig Bond movies break most definitively with the past are in two memorable scenes where the characters are basically broken down by the brutality of their world. They’re similarly staged: Bond and Vesper on the floor of the shower, embracing as Vesper weeps from the violence she’s seen and her narrow escape from it; and Bond and Camille on the floor of the burning hotel room, preparing to commit suicide rather than burn to death. I think that’s the equivalent of Bourne’s apologies.

* I think both franchises are remarkably well cast. This is perhaps most obvious in the Bourne movies, whose supporting casts Greengrass has likened to a fleet of high-end automobiles, and for good reason. But I’m thinking mostly of the two leads. Though my wife disagrees with me, Daniel Craig strikes me as a fabulously handsome man, combining a steely-eyed glare, a battle-damaged face, and a confident swagger that is more Bond than Bond has ever been before. And the dude is cut out of wood–there’s a reason the big “rising up from the ocean in a skimpy bathing suit” shot in Casino Royale was of Bond and not a Bond girl. (Though I certainly wouldn’t have objected to Eva Green going for a dip. Best Bond girl ever.) Yet I think his body is put on display as often as it is in order to drive home just how vulnerable it is, that it’s just a slab of meet you can really pulverize the hell out of–witness the nude torture scene in Casino. Meanwhile, it took me a long time to come around to Matt Damon, but between the Bourne movies and The Departed he’s really learned to use his sort of vacant Abercrombie-model looks in the most perverse way possible, suggesting a ruthlessness beneath the all-Americanness. And as the depths of his crimes are slowly revealed to him, he does “dazed” very well, too, almost a panic about what he’s learned he’s capable of. Both Craig and Damon sell it, mentally, physically, emotionally.

* I haven’t yet mentioned the fact that the two franchises are derived from books by Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum respectively. What does that say, and who or what does it say it about? I don’t know.

* One thing I learned from watching all of these movies in such close proximity is that I really love movies about psychologically wounded men who become ruthlessly efficient killing machines and murder their way to justice. In addition to Bourne and Bond, I think you can loop the late-model John Rambo into that group; as Matthew Perpetua pointed out to me, take out the killing and replace it with ass-kicking and Batman works there too. Movie-version Aragorn wouldn’t be out of place either. I think I appreciate the way that violence and regret intertwine for these characters. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

8 Responses to Ladies and gentlemen, without no doubt, these are the JBs!

  1. Jim D. says:

    You’ve pretty much nailed how I feel about these movies. I never got the criticisms of the Bourne movies as having confusing/shaky camera work – it all seemed perfectly logical and well-staged to me.

    We have to part ways on Bond girls, though – Eva Green is lovely enough, but she’s no Ursula Andress, and I’m partial to Sophie Marceau from the modern era. (Heck, I even liked Caterina Murino better in Casino Royale.) Good actress, though.

  2. I’m just historically unlikely to have problems with skinny, bosomy, pale brunettes, is the deal.

  3. Hugh Stewart says:

    Very nice write-up, I really enjoyed it.

    I find it interesting that by the end of Quantum, Bond is basically up against the Systems of this World. Who will be the villain in the third movie, I wonder? The British Prime Minister?

    (Actually, I’m kind of assuming that the new Bond movies are going to be some kind of trilogy, and I have no clue where I got this idea from. Has anybody at the studios ever actually said anything to this effect?)

  4. Bruce Baugh says:

    Strong, strong agreement on pretty much all this stuff, Sean. 🙂

  5. Jim D. says:

    “I’m just historically unlikely to have problems with skinny, bosomy, pale brunettes, is the deal.”

    Ha! Of course.

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  7. Davey Oil says:

    Me and D (my wife) both loooove the Bourne movies as well. I think you are spot on with all your points here.
    Fun bonus game, replace Jason Bourne with Wolverine and you have a much better X-Men Origins!

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