Bourne Again

By Rob Patterson

Action movies are a Hollywood staple but usually the bane of anyone who enjoys films with some substance and doesn’t enjoy gratuitous violence. I don’t want my intelligence insulted nor do I care to verge too far into politically incorrect realms, making action a genre I step into very carefully. It’s easy to dismiss action films, but they are such a primary and potent component of modern movies. And sometimes, even though I’m usually a bit of a film snob, I just want to sit back and be entertained and even, yes, thrilled.

Such films are also frequently the highly successful genre of some of the most wooden actors in filmdom—witness Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. As well, they can serve as a tempting trap for genuinely talented actors like Nicolas Cage, whose roles in films like Raising Arizona and Moonstruck showed a charming knack for offbeat comedic characters while his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas demonstrated his ability to handle gravitas.

His box office power has increased exponentially since Cage became an action star (and a rather unlikely one at that), but in the few of his action films I’ve seen, Nicolas Cage the true actor only seems to occasionally peek out from behind his characters. But any male actor who wants to become a household name and make the big bucks can often do so most effectively by becoming an action star.

Having just watched the recently-released DVD of The Bourne Ultimatum, the third film in Matt Damon’s Bourne trilogy, preceded by The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, it’s gratifying to know that the action/thriller genre isn’t thoroughly riddled with banality, bullets and bomb blasts. The Bourne movies may not be cinematic classics, but they do stand a cut above the competition in the action game.

One surprise of the Bourne films is that they are so good, given that the source material are the three books of the same name by Robert Ludlum, the best-selling author of thrillers who can best be described as a hack. I know because on occasion a Ludlum book has landed in my lap and I’ve slogged my way through his wooden prose, carried along by at least his ability to craft a page-turning plot.

The Bourne movies have wisely used their source material as little more than a blueprint, which I think is one key to why they work so well. Damon plays amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne with little fanfare and few grand gestures, creating a role that nicely melds rather common man with übermensch.

Unlike the Bond films and Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movies, Bourne doesn’t depend on gadgets and technology to triumph. Nor is his hero a muscle-bound macho man. Keen instincts, cunning, determination and occasional acts of stunning physical prowess are what keep Bourne alive as the CIA seeks to terminate its rogue agent along with others who want him dead.

Conspiracy theorists can easily get behind the premise that the CIA trained assassins and how the agency houses everything from people who are willing to suspend morality for what they believe are greater goals to those who use the agency for their own aggrandizement to others who are trying their best to serve their country on the slippery ethical slope of the spy game. There may not be any grand geopolitical statements as with the many films made from John LeCarre’s masterful novels, but at least the Bourne trilogy has a smattering of smarts and political implications.

And at the heart of them is the underlying universal theme of man’s search for his identity. The three movies also offer a colorful travelogue by being shot in actual locations around the world. The intrigue is gripping, and when the action breaks out, it grabs you and carries you along and never verges into absurd overkill.

This may sound like I am damning them with faint praise, but it’s not. Movies with grand themes, great acting and philosophical richness and meaning may be what I like best. But sometimes it’s just nice to be entertained. And the Bourne trilogy does just that quite handily and without going too low and dumb or over the top.

They series was supposed to end with The Bourne Ultimatum, just like Ludlum’s Bourne books. But it was recently announced that a fourth one is in the works. (Will they be from the further Bourne sequels written after Ludlum’s death by Eric Van Lustbader, who started out as a music journalist and PR writer like I did?)

So if you have an upcoming weekend or series of weeknights where you just want to escape with an entertaining cinematic roller coaster ride with some thrills and chills, slipping the trio of Bourne trilogy into the DVD player is an option that hopefully won’t leave you feeling foolish and unfulfilled. They’re pleasures you don’t even have to feel guilty about.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2008

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