Friday, November 21, 2014

The Bourne Ultimatum

After two films with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) on the defensive and on the run, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) sees our hero going on the offensive and taking the fight to his handlers. Coming full circle not only thematically, but also on a production level – the film was born out of chaos as principal photography began without a completed screenplay – it managed to come out the other side with a coherent final product that endeared itself to both audiences and critics. Ultimatum not only avoids the dreaded third installment of a trilogy jinx (they are notoriously the weakest), but ends up being the strongest one of the series as Bourne gets some definitive answers to who he is and his past.

Ultimatum picks up right where The Bourne Supremacy (2004) left off with Bourne on the run in Moscow after being seriously injured in an exciting car chase with a fellow Treadstone assassin. Meanwhile, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), an investigative reporter with The Guardian, a British newspaper, is working on a story about Bourne and a top-secret CIA operation known as Blackbriar. Naturally, the agency finds out and puts Ross under surveillance in the hopes that Bourne will contact him, which he does, at a busy London train station.

Bourne’s rendezvous with Ross amidst the hustle and bustle of the train station is a nice homage to the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) as the two men are heavily scrutinized by all kinds of CIA surveillance. There is a lot of fun to be had watching Bourne masterfully evade all their manpower and hi-tech equipment in a wonderfully intense and insanely choreographed sequence that successfully ratchets up the tension as the CIA closes in. However, before Bourne can get Ross to reveal his source, an extremely efficient Blackbriar assassin (Edgar Ramirez) kills the journalist and disappears like a ghost.

Fortunately, Bourne takes Ross’ notes and figures out that the source is located in Madrid. During the course of his investigation, Bourne is reunited with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a CIA operative sympathetic to his plight. Within the agency, the man in charge of Blackbriar, CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) wants Bourne dead because he sees him as a dangerous liability while another agent, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), wants to take him alive because she doesn’t agree with Vosen’s methods. This results in some wonderfully testy bickering between the two actors as they argue over what to do about Bourne. The rest of Ultimatum plays out as a brilliantly staged cat and mouse game with Bourne turning the tables on his handlers.

This time around, David Strathairn is the veteran character actor enlisted to play the CIA honcho tasked to find and eliminate Bourne. Like Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity) and Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) before him, he has the gravitas to play a take-charge authority figure and part of the enjoyment of this film is watching Bourne constantly thwart Vosen’s plans. In Ultimatum, Landy is a more sympathetic figure as she wants to capture Bourne alive (unlike Vosen). As the film progresses and she learns more about what the United States government did to Bourne and others in Treadstone, she realizes that she can no longer be complicit in the CIA’s illegal activities. Nicky Parsons also undergoes significant development as she ends up helping Bourne and turns out to be a key figure in his past.

Paul Greengrass, who also directed Supremacy, is back behind the camera bringing his trademark, no-nonsense pacing and visceral, hand-held camerawork to Ultimatum. The film’s action sequences are the epitome of edgy intensity as the fight scenes are quick and as brutal as a PG-13 rating will allow. They are realistically depicted – after all, guys as well trained as Bourne don’t waste any time and know exactly how to bring someone down as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Like with the other Bourne films, Ultimatum also has exciting chases, including the police pursuing Bourne over rooftops in Tangiers while he’s chasing an assassin going after Nicky, and a crazy car chase through the busy streets of New York City. Greengrass and his stunt people upped the ante on the chases, most notably the sequence in Tangiers, which starts off with scooters in the busy streets and then after a car bomb goes off, along rooftops on foot. Greengrass’ kinetic camerawork is taken to the next level as we literally follow Bourne leaping through the air from one building to another.

The lo-tech versus hi-tech dichotomy is beautifully realized in all three Bourne films as symbolized in the way he kills the highly trained assassins sent to kill him. In The Bourne Identity (2002), it’s with a pen, in Supremacy it’s with a rolled up magazine and in Ultimatum it’s with a book. The films never make a big deal about it and even show how well Bourne can manipulate technology, but his best chance at survival is to MacGyver it and stay off the grid.

With the phenomenal success of The Bourne Supremacy, Universal Pictures persuaded screenwriter Tony Gilroy to write the first draft of The Bourne Ultimatum for a significant amount of money, but only under the conditions that he could leave after its completion and that he wouldn’t have to speak with director Paul Greengrass, who was also returning, and did not get along with the writer. According to Damon, “It’s really the studio’s fault for putting themselves in that position. I don’t blame Tony for taking a boatload of money and handing in what he handed in. It’s just that it was unreadable. This is a career-ender.”

After Gilroy left the project and a release date looming, Greengrass brought in four other writers including George Nolfi, Scott Z. Burns, and Tom Stoppard, the latter who said of his input: “Some of the themes are still mine—but I don’t think there’s a single word of mine in the film.” Amazingly, before the film’s release date, Gilroy arbitrated and lost to get sole credit. As a result, the filmmakers were writing the script as they were making the film over three continents in 140 shooting days. According to Damon, “There wasn’t a single day where we didn’t have new pages! The main issue was that a question was never answered: Why was Bourne here? … What Paul settled on was that it has to be a story about meeting his maker.”

The exciting chase through the streets of Tangiers was an homage to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966). It took 14 days to shoot with Bourne’s rooftop leap done by a stuntman jumping right behind Bourne while carrying a small, lightweight camera. According to second unit director and stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, he often allowed the stunt people to hold the cameras because “they’re not too freaked out about getting hit or sliding under something while holding a camera. Some of the best shots in Supremacy and Ultimatum are because the stunt guys were operating.” Once again, Greengrass applied an independent film aesthetic to a big studio movie budget or, as he put it, “one of the ways you do it is to try your luck and set the action in places where you can’t behave like a big movie … You’re forced to sort of be a bit like a student film and make it up as you go along, live on the land and shoot when people are around.”

The Bourne Ultimatum received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Greengrass’ direction: “He not only creates (or seems to create) amazingly long takes but does it without calling attention to them. Whether they actually are unbroken stretches of film or are spliced together by invisible wipes, what counts is that they present such mind-blowing action that I forgot to keep track.” In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Bourne is now very much a man alone, existentially and otherwise. Mr. Damon makes him haunted, brooding and dark. The light seems to have gone out in his eyes, and the skin stretches so tightly across his cantilevered cheekbones that you can see the outline of his skull, its macabre silhouette. He looks like death in more ways than one.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The Bourne Ultimatum is a spectacular windup toy of a thriller – a contraption made by an artist.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, “Damon lends an air of conscious integrity to the part, a quality of reflective introspection that acts as an amazingly effective ballast against the complete implausibility of his continued survival.”

However, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Greengrass cuts each action scene into agitated bits; but he can’t let fast enough alone. Could he please explain why, in the chat scenes, the camera is afflicted with Parkinson’s? The film frame trembles, obscures the speaker with the listener’s shoulder, annoys viewers and distracts them from the content of the scene.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “It’s not a movie; it’s a trip through a gun barrel at the head of a cloud of exploding gas, and you end up splattered against a wall, then sliding into the dust with the sound of the drums ringing in your head for hours.”

If Identity was about our hero escaping from his CIA handlers and Supremacy was about him figuring out why they are still after him, then Ultimatum is all about getting revenge on those responsible for messing up his life in the first place and figuring out, once and for all, his identity. What elevates Ultimatum (and the rest of the series) above, say, the Mission: Impossible movies, is that it is more than just an exciting thriller (although, it does work on that level). It is also has a sharp, political component in the form of a scathing critique of the CIA’s dirty little secrets. The series ultimately asks, what happens when a highly-trained and conditioned government operative questions what he does and why? How does he undo the programming that made him what he is and come to grips with what he’s done? This film answers these questions to a satisfying degree while also being very entertaining conclusion to the series.


Carnevale, Rob. “The Bourne Ultimatum – Paul Greengrass Interview.” indieLONDON. 2007.

Crabtree, Sheigh. “When He Calls ‘Action,’ He Means It.” Los Angeles Times. August 5, 2007.

Max, D.T. “Twister.” The New Yorker. March 16, 2009.

Nashawaty, Chris. “The Strong Violent Type.” Entertainment Weekly. August 6, 2007.

Rapkin, Mickey. “Tom Stoppard.” Time Out New York. October 18, 2007.

Thompson, Anne. “Greengrass Brings Auds Into Picture.” Variety. August 3, 2007.

Wallace, Amy. “Wicked Smaht.” GQ. January 2012.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Bourne Supremacy

After the grueling experience that was making The Bourne Identity (2002), Matt Damon was understandably wary about reprising the role of Jason Bourne. However, the film’s substantial box office success meant that the studio was eager to crank out a sequel and brought their leading man back into the fold with the promise of a new director after Doug Liman managed to alienate almost everyone on the first film. Paul Greengrass, director of the critically-acclaimed Bloody Sunday (2002) came on board taking up where Liman left off by adopting the same loose, hand-held camerawork and cranking up the intensity, especially with the action sequences, to the detriment of some that felt the herky-jerky movements resulted in motion sickness. Regardless, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) was a hit both critically and commercially, outperforming Identity.

Bourne (Matt Damon) and Marie (Franka Potente) have gone off the grid by taking refuge in India and this gives him time to sort through his fragmented memories and feverish nightmares. But, as is always the case with these kinds of films, our hero can’t stay hidden for long and trouble finds him. Meanwhile, a top-secret government deal in Berlin goes bad. Two agents are assassinated by Russian bad guys who steal $3 million and files that pertain to the whereabouts of Bourne. Greengrass ups the stakes right from the get-go as he has Bourne framed for the agents’ deaths and the stolen money and has an assassin (Karl Urban) track him and Marie down. An exciting car chase ensues that leaves Bourne alone and putting on him on the run again. This makes him dangerous as he has nothing holding him back so he can focus entirely on finding out who wants him dead and sift through the remnants of Operation Treadstone from the first film.

One of the first things that becomes obvious while watching this film is how its look harkens back to 1970s American cinema. Director Paul Greengrass utilizes the gritty, realistic look of his previous film, the powerful Bloody Sunday, with a lot of hand-held camerawork and snap zooms to give a you-are-there rush of adrenaline and urgency to the action sequences. In the car chases, Greengrass often places the camera right in the vehicle so that it is almost like we are riding along with Bourne, trying to piece together his fragmented past. In particular, the first chase in India is like The French Connection (1971) by way of Calcutta. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay wastes no time getting into it. We’re not 15 minutes into the film and Bourne is being chased by a mysterious and ruthless Russian assassin. It is this intense, no-nonsense pacing that propels this film so that one barely notices the two-hour running time.

Matt Damon plays Bourne with a quiet determination and intensity. It’s a surprisingly minimalist performance devoid of self-conscious tics and proves that his performance in the first Bourne film was no fluke. Bourne is not some invincible, super-soldier, but a tortured man trying to rebuild his past and his identity. He doesn’t kill unless absolutely forced to. And yet, he is certainly a man of action, capable of going from an inert, passive figure to one full of explosive action in a heartbeat. Supremacy sheds more light on his past as he’s haunted by a job where he killed a Russian politician and his wife. Damon does a nice job of portraying a man coming to terms with the fact that he is a killer. Bourne also comes to terms with the notion that what was just another mission for him forever changed the life of a young woman who was made an orphan because he killed her parents. It is an important part of the humanizing of Bourne as he sheds his past of being a detached assassin to someone trying to redeem himself. He tracks down people like Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), introduced in Identity as a handler to the Treadstone assassins, that can provide him with pieces of his past so that he confronts it and understand what he was in order to change who he is in the present.

The primary bone of contention that critics had with The Bourne Supremacy was how Greengrass films the action sequences. There is an impressively staged fight scene between Bourne and another Operation Treadstone survivor in Munich that is dizzyingly claustrophobic thanks to extensive hand-held camerawork that dives right into the chaos. It is memorable not only for its jarring brutality but also for Bourne’s skill with a rolled-up magazine that he uses to defend himself against a rather large knife. Greengrass’ camera flies around the tight confines of this room, dragging us along for this visceral, almost primal sequence. He treads a fine line between being edgy and incoherent, but knows just how far to push it – something that the countless imitators didn’t always achieve. This approach drew criticism for being too fragmented and disorienting, making it difficult to see what was happening but I think it was Greengrass’ attempt to put the audience right in the middle of the action and to experience the sudden and brutal nature of how quickly these guys fight.

Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy is an interesting character in that initially it appears as if she will be an antagonist like Conklin in The Bourne Identity, but when she’s assigned to investigate the Berlin job she uncovers the existence of Treadstone and this brings her up against Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), the operation’s caretaker and the man who also mothballed it. She’s no dummy and quickly figures out its nature, what Conklin was up to and Bourne’s role, which, in a nicely executed scene, quickly recaps the events of Identity for those who haven’t seen it. Over the course of Supremacy, she shows indications of sympathy towards Bourne’s plight that are developed further in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Allen’s scenes with Cox are interesting as they are often fused with tension as Landy uncovers the secrets of Treadstone while Abbott, clearly uncomfortable with his dirty laundry being aired, tries to cover his ass, which makes for some heated exchanges between the two as they butt heads.

The Bourne Supremacy gives more screen-time to the character of Nicky Parsons. Landy brings her along because of what she knows, but Nicky ends up playing a crucial role when Bourne confronts her, asking questions about the operation. Stiles was an up and coming movie star in the late 1990s with films like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), but had dropped off the mainstream radar by the mid-2000s. It is nice to see her pop up in the Bourne films even if she isn’t give much to do initially.

The Bourne Supremacy was based loosely on the 1986 best-selling novel of the same name by Robert Ludlum. Universal Pictures offered screenwriter Tony Gilroy $3 million to write the screenplay and he agreed, but only if it wasn’t a repeat of The Bourne Identity. Gilroy used a plot point from the novel – Marie is kidnapped and held ransom, forcing Bourne out of hiding – as the impetus for the sequel. The screenwriter came up with the idea of taking Bourne on “what amounts to the samurai’s journey, this journey of atonement,” said producer Frank Marshall. Gilroy didn’t want to make a revenge movie because “Bourne killed people and he doesn’t start the movie with a clean slate. There’s a lot of blood on his hands.” He decided to make Bourne a reluctant murderer and that he should suffer for his crimes. To this end, Gilroy envisioned Supremacy as “The Searchers of action films,” but was upset that Greengrass came in and placed an emphasis on action and not Bourne’s atonement.

Next, the producers had to find a new director that would have an affinity for the subject matter. Gilroy recommended that Marshall watch Bloody Sunday, directed by Paul Greengrass. It was a gritty recreation of the 1972 peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland that ended in violence. The producers were impressed with the film’s immediacy and sense of realism. Greengrass liked The Bourne Identity and how it “married an independent sort of feel with a mainstream Hollywood sensibility.” He flew to Prague and met with actor Matt Damon and they talked about the character of Bourne. Greengrass said of the character: “I think this film is not so much about a man who’s lost his memory, although that is part of it – but it’s more about what happens when you’ve recovered your memory and realized that you’re actually a bad man.”

Damon spent months doing personal and combat training including special firearm instruction in order to portray a trained assassin. The actor worked with a SWAT expert in Los Angeles so that when Bourne first picks up a gun in the film “it needs to look like an extension of his arm,” Damon said. He and Greengrass got along right away with the actor happy to have a director “who was putting you first and saying, ‘Be as natural and real and honest as you can and it’s our job to capture it rather than yours to adjust for the sake of my shot.’ That’s the thing an actor wants to hear.” The actor had no problem doing most of his own stunts, but was apprehensive doing an underwater scene where Bourne’s car goes crashing into a river. “I didn’t want to do that at all,” Damon said and so he worked with a diving instructor a couple times a week for a month in order learn how to relax underwater without an oxygen mask and eventually be able to do simple tasks like tying a shoe. Still, after one day of shooting under water, he “woke up probably four times gasping for breath, thinking I was drowning. It was terrible.”

Principal photography began on the streets of Moscow then moved to Berlin with the city’s former eastern sector doubling for the streets of the Russian capital and finally ending in Goa, India. Producer Patrick Crowley wanted the transition from locations to mirror Bourne’s arc “from lush, tropical and warm to more progressively cool, steely, blue, then finally to grays.” To depict the visceral car chases, the production utilized a high-speed, low center of gravity, chassis replacement stunt driving camera platform that was piloted by a stunt driver from a moveable cockpit, which allowed all kinds of camera placement around the vehicle.

The Bourne Supremacy enjoyed most positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “That Matt Damon is able to bring some poignancy to Jason Bourne makes the process more interesting, because we care more about the character.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Where most Hollywood action movies, edited within an inch of their lives, use split-second leaps and flashes as visual jolts to camouflage holes, The Bourne Supremacy knows what it’s doing. Its relentless speed not only puts you in Jason’s shoes by suggesting the adrenaline rush of a fugitive who has no time to look around, but also suggests Jason’s quick thinking.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Even the fights have an ominous unpredictability. In the first film, Bourne slipped into robotic martial-arts mode. Here, he’s clawing for his life.”

USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “As fine a job as Doug Liman did on Bourne Identity, Greengrass gives Bourne Supremacy a dynamism and edgy quality closer in spirit to a gritty European thriller than a summer action blockbuster.” The Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, “There are all sorts of pleasures to be had in this summer bauble, but the most unexpectedly resonant is the sight of this boyish face frozen in a mirror as he finally grasps what he did once upon a time.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Thomson wrote, “Supremacy feels sleek, elegant and stripped down. And its straight-ahead plotting, low-tech action sequences and narrative efficiency make effortless mockery of the James Bond franchise.”

The people behind the Bourne franchise are smart and willing to take chances. They cast an atypical action hero with Matt Damon, surrounded him with an eclectic cast that mixed Hollywood and internationally known stars (with the likes of Julia Stiles, Brian Cox and Karl Urban) and hired independent filmmakers like Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass against type to direct, letting them put their own unique stamp on their respective films. Ultimately, The Bourne Supremacy is all about the title character making amends for his past. There is a scene where he confronts the woman, whose parents he killed, that is rich in understated emotion as Bourne takes responsibility for his actions and tells her what really happened. It’s a great way to end the film as Greengrass eschews the cliché of a climactic action sequence (which happens before this scene) in favor of a more poignant one as Bourne atones for one of his many sins while also setting things up for the next installment.


The Bourne Supremacy Production Notes. Universal Pictures. 2004.

Carter, Kelly. “Director to the Manner Bourne.” Los Angeles Times. July 18, 2004.

Max, D.T. “Twister.” The New Yorker. March 16, 2009.

Rebello, Stephen. “Playboy Interview: Matt Damon.” Playboy. December 13, 2012.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Bourne Identity

When The Bourne Identity (2002) debuted in theaters, audiences were hungry for a new kind of spy film. The James Bond movies adhered to a tried and true formula and it had gotten old. Mission: Impossible II (2000) collapsed under John Woo’s stylistic excesses and a boring love story with no chemistry between Tom Cruise and his love interest played by Thandie Newton. The world had changed dramatically since the events of 9/11 and a new international espionage action thriller would have to acknowledge this new reality. Along came The Bourne Identity, a very loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel of the same name and it connected with audiences even if most critics hated it.

A mysterious, unconscious body is found floating out at sea by a boatload of fishermen. Two bullets in his back and a device that stores a Swiss bank account are found embedded in his hip. He wakes up with amnesia and one of the men onboard fixes him up. It isn’t until almost five minutes in that the first bit of understandable dialogue is uttered. Up to that point director Doug Liman drops us into this strange world without any set up so that we are disoriented, much like the film’s protagonist and therefore we identify and empathize with him almost instantly. These first few scenes establish the film’s style – constantly moving camerawork often with jarring, jerky movements that mimic our hero’s disorientation.

After two weeks at sea, he makes his way to land and begins a quest to uncover his identity. Over time, he discovers skills he didn’t know he had but that come out instinctively, like the ability to disable two armed police officers with his bare hands in Switzerland. He checks out his Swiss bank account and discovers that his name is Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). The safety deposit box contains money, passports for several different countries, and a gun. It becomes obvious that Bourne assembled this stash of supplies in case of a situation like the one he’s currently experiencing.

After a daring escape from the United States embassy, Bourne pays a young German woman named Marie (Franka Potente) to drive him to Paris where he apparently lives. It turns out that he’s some kind of lethal, CIA-trained assassin who has something to do with a top-secret operation known as Treadstone and he should be dead. It seems that the United States government is trying to silence an exiled Nigerian dictator by the name of Nykwana Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Aghaje) now living in Paris. He wants the CIA to put him back in power in six months or he’ll blow the whistle on their attempt to assassinate him. The man in charge of Treadstone – Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper) – wants to make sure Bourne is dead because he was supposed to kill Wombosi when something went wrong. He sends three other assassins after Bourne and Marie.

Because Bourne suffers from amnesia and is being hunted by a secret branch of the CIA, we sympathize with his plight. It doesn’t hurt that he’s portrayed by Matt Damon who comes across as instantly likable and empathetic. Before The Bourne Identity, he was not regarded as an action star and so his capacity for sudden bursts of ruthlessly efficient violence and the ability to escape from several dangerous situations was a revelation. Damon pulls it off and more importantly is convincing as a deadly assassin with no memory. He is nothing short of a revelation as Bourne and the actor does an excellent job of not only gaining our sympathy early on, but also maintaining it throughout as we root for Bourne to figure out who he is.

When Bourne breaks out his martial arts for the first time in the film we are as surprised as he is and not just because it’s the first time we’ve seen him do so, but at the time Damon had never done a film like this before and it was his debut as a man of action. To his credit, he looks very adept and comfortable in the fight scenes and doing the stunts. The first substantial fight sequence where Bourne is attacked by a fellow Treadstone assassin is a visceral set piece as he uses every day objects like a pen to defend himself. This is not the clean, polished style of Bond movies, but down and dirty fighting that looks bloody and painful. It has a personal vibe to it as the fight takes place up close and personal in an apartment. I like that the film shows Marie’s reaction to what has just happened. She is genuinely shocked and upset at the sudden outburst of violence she witnessed. As she and Bourne flee the scene she even throws up as a reaction to being in real danger.

The casting of Franka Potente as Bourne’s love interest is an intriguing choice. She doesn’t have the supermodel looks associated with the Bond girls. She’s beautiful with a nice smile and an easy-going charm. She’s relatable and grounded – part of the film’s realistic aesthetic. Marie is an every day person thrust into extraordinary circumstances once she encounters Bourne. Potente also brings a certain amount of international cinema cache thanks to her breakout performance in Run Lola Run (1998). As a result, she doesn’t come across as some damsel in distress, but a proactive foil for Bourne. They quickly develop an easy rapport as he finds her constant, nervous talking comforting. Damon and Potente play well off each other in these early scenes as her character humanizes Bourne so that he’s not just some inhuman killing machine.

Chris Cooper is ideally cast as the no-nonsense bureaucrat Conklin who knows more than Bourne and yet is always one step behind in finding and catching the elusive assassin. He isn’t given much to do, but makes the most of his limited screen-time as he orchestrates the search for Bourne with considerable technological resources at his disposal. Cooper exudes just the right amount of uptight malevolence that we’ve come to expect from a Republican-controlled government. A young Clive Owen shows up as a Treadstone assassin who methodically tracks and then kills his targets. His showdown with Bourne in a field of tall grass is a tension-filled sequence as our hero uses misdirection to get the drop on the assassin, neutralizing him, but not before he imparts crucial information about Bourne’s past.

One of the reasons that The Bourne Identity was such a game changer for the spy movie genre came as a result of taking the hi-tech surveillance used in movies like Enemy of the State (1998) and updated it on a global scale as Conklin and his room full of I.T. specialists (including character actor extraordinaire Walton Goggins in a small role) track Bourne’s movements in Europe. Everyone leaves electronic footprints be it through credit card use or being picked up on security cameras and this was even more prevalent after 9/11. This heightened sense of surveillance has become a part of our daily lives. There is a certain delicious irony at work as Liman crosscuts between Conklin and his staff using sophisticated technology to find two people who are doing their best to stay off the grid, which results in them taking refuge in a house in the French countryside.

I like that Liman shows Bourne and Marie actually trying figure out his identity by doing the legwork involved as they call potential leads on the phone, visit key locations and talk to people as they try to put together the jigsaw puzzle that is his past. There’s a nice sequence where Bourne walks Marie through a task that he needs her to do for him. As she makes her way through a hotel lobby his words play through her head and we hear them over the soundtrack in voiceover narration.

At the time of its release, much was made of the chaotic production that pitted indie director Doug Liman and against Universal Pictures. Their dirty laundry was aired in the mainstream press and there was speculation that The Bourne Identity was going to be a box office failure. After the critical and commercial success of Go (1999), Liman decided to pursue his passion project – an adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, a book he loved while growing up. It had been published in 1980 and featured an ex-foreign-service officer on the CIA’s hit list. Liman read it again while making Swingers (1996) and found that the characters still engaged him. He inquired about the film rights and found that Warner Bros. controlled them. Over time, the rights expired and Liman met Ludlum at his home in Montana, securing the rights. In 2000, Liman asked screenwriter Tony Gilroy if he would rewrite the screenplay he had for The Bourne Identity. After the success of The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Gilroy had gotten a reputation for saving damaged scripts.

Gilroy was not thrilled with the source material: “Those works were never meant to be filmed. They weren’t about human behavior. They were about running to airports.” Liman persuaded Gilroy to read the script, which he realized was “awful,” but they met and the latter asked the former why he wanted to make this film. Gilroy declined Liman’s offer, but when pressed gave him a suggestion: toss the novel and keep the idea of an assassin with amnesia. “You only have one way to find out … What do I know how to do? I guess your movie should be about a guy who finds the only thing he knows how to do is kill people.”

Liman eventually wore Gilroy down and he agreed to work on the script. While the first five minutes of the film comes from Ludlum’s book everything after Bourne gets off the boat was created by Gilroy. At the time, Matt Damon wanted to “try an action movie … exactly the way I’d love to do it, with someone who was thinking outside the box. Doug being Doug, this would be an interesting movie.” He agreed to do the film after meeting Liman and reading Gilroy’s script.

Liman took the project to Universal Pictures in the first place because “it was just as important to them as it was to me to make this a character-driven movie and not just a generic action movie.” By his own admission, the director was mistrustful of studio decisions like their suggestion that he shoot in Montreal instead of Paris to keep costs down. He argued that the Canadian city didn’t look like the City of Lights and the studio relented. Liman applied his often chaotic, unpredictable style of filmmaking to a big budget studio film with mixed results, often angering the producers. For example, once in Paris, he hired a crew that didn’t speak English (so he could practice his French).

When Damon arrived he didn’t like the changes made to the script after the one that made him sign on in the first place. Liman had brought in David Self (Thirteen Days) to fix what he felt was a problematic third act when Gilroy left to write Proof of Life (2000). Some of the character-driven material had been removed in favor of bigger action sequences. According to Damon, Self “went to the book and did a page-one rewrite. Every few pages, something blew up … It was not the movie I agreed to do.” Editor Saar Klein remembers, “We went into production with a script that was just a mess.” Liman agreed and Gilroy came back after finishing Proof of Life to write new scenes and fax them from New York City to Paris.

Producer Richard Gladstein left the production because his wife was going through a difficult pregnancy. Universal did not want Liman filming unsupervised in Europe and brought in veteran producer Frank Marshall who had known the director since he was a child. The studio felt that Liman’s approach was unorganized and unnecessarily costly. He responded by saying, “I like to keep my options open. I’m known for changing my mind.” The studio also felt that he lacked maturity. For example, one night Liman paid the crew overtime to light a forest for him to play paintball. Liman claimed that the studio hated him and they tried to shut him down: “The producers were the bad guys.”

It got so bad between Liman and the studio that they rejected anything he said. The director ended up using Damon as his surrogate, but this only worked for a short time. One day, Liman realized he’d missed a shot and asked the producers if he could redo the scene. They said no and so he loaded four minutes of film in a camera and reshot the scene himself, which infuriated the producers. This resulted in a giant screaming match on the set. At one point, Liman even toyed with auctioning off his director’s credit on eBay. Despite all the friction between Liman and the studio the end result speaks for itself. The Bourne Identity was a commercial hit, but the studio had not surprisingly soured on Liman and banned him from directing the sequels. “I lost my baby,” he said.

The Bourne Identity was shown to a test audience who liked it, but wanted more action at the end. After much debate with the studio, Liman and Gilroy devised a new action sequence. The screenwriter did not enjoy the experience of working with Liman finding that the director “didn’t have any sense of story, or cause and effect.” Liman found Gilroy “arrogant” and at one point attempted to hire a new screenwriter until Damon threatened to quit if his script wasn’t used. Gilroy saw a rough cut during post-production and was worried that the film wasn’t going to be good. It had come out a year late and went through four rounds of reshoots. He tried to take his credit off the film and arbitrated against himself. He wanted to share credit (and blame) with someone else. After all the dust had settled the film went over budget by $8 million and two weeks over schedule. This forced Universal to move the original release date of September 2001 to February 2002 only to push it back again to May 31 and finally settling on June 14.

The Bourne Identity received mostly negative to mixed reviews from mainstream critics. Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Liman and Damon, with his whiz kid’s avid brashness, would seem to be a perfect match, but The Bourne Identity, which plays like John Le Carre with a couple of burnt-out cylinders, is far more routine than they apparently think it is.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “Like the indestructible Timex watch, it keeps grinding along, oblivious to its own stupidity and to the giant holes in its plot or even the general staleness of its central conceit.”

In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Damon at first seems too moody and cerebral to be an action hero, but he grasps Bourne’s predicament perfectly, and takes it seriously enough to make the film’s improbably conceit seem more interesting than it might otherwise have been.” Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and called it, “a skillful action movie about a plot that exists only to support a skillful action movie.” USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “What’s more, the locales – or what reviewers always used to call ‘scenic values’ – make the difference between a decent espionage outing and a very good one.”

What separates The Bourne Identity from the Bond films at the time is that it took the international espionage thriller and personalized it. For the most part, the adventures that Bond had in his movies never affected him personally (the notable exception being License to Kill and now the Daniel Craig films) while in The Bourne Identity it is very personal, but without sacrificing all the things we’ve come to expect from a spy movie: exotic locales, exciting car chases, lethal bad guys, and intense fight scenes. What made the film such a breath of fresh air was how it tweaked these tried and true conventions.

At its heart, The Bourne Identity is a mystery as Bourne tries to figure out who he is and why there are people trying to kill him. This gives Liman the opportunity to ratchet up the tension as Bourne is constantly looking over his shoulder, never able to rest for too long and unable to trust anyone except for Marie. Known previously for character-driven independent films Swingers and Go, Liman showed his adeptness at working in multiple genres by bringing his trademark loose, almost improvisational approach that breathed new life into the spy genre. It had become safe and predictable and it took an outsider like Liman and casting against type with Damon to shake things up. Without The Bourne Identity, Casino Royale (2006) would have been a very different film and the subsequent Daniel Craig Bond films wouldn’t be as gritty and substantial as they are.


Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca. “Behind the Scenes of The Bourne Identity.” Entertainment Weekly. June 21, 2002.

The Bourne Identity Production Notes. Universal Pictures. 2002.

Fishman, Steve. “The Liman Identity.” New York magazine. January 13, 2008.

Hanrahan, Denise. “Doug Liman: The Bourne Identity.” BBC. September 5, 2002.

King, Tom. “Bourne to Be Wild.” The Wall Street Journal. March 12, 2007.

Max, D.T. “Twister.” The New Yorker. March 16, 2009.

Wallace, Amy. “Wicked Smaht.” GQ. January 2012.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The 1980s was a fertile period for fantasy films and Disney tried to capitalize on this in the early part of the decade with an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was a turbulent time for the Mouse House as they struggled with making commercially successful live-action and animated movies. So, they decided to take a chance on a few projects that did not originate in-house and were not typical Disney fare, including Tex (1982), Tron (1982) and this Bradbury adaptation (1983). The author adapted his own work and legendary director Jack Clayton (The Innocents) came on board, but the project was plagued with several post-production problems that threatened its integrity. This is apparent in the amped up, special effects-laden finale, but it does little to diminish the power of the film.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is narrated by Will Halloway as an adult (Arthur Hill) reflecting on his misadventures as a 12-year-old (Vidal Peterson) with best friend Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) during October in the small town of Green Town, Illinois. We see them playing together after school and Clayton really captures the carefree life that kids enjoy at that age, how “you want to run forever through the fields, because up ahead, 10,000 pumpkins lie waiting to be cut,” as the voiceover narration says. In a few minutes, Clayton captures a bygone era so brilliantly that you can almost touch the leaves or smell the crisp, cold air. The film is drenched in autumnal atmosphere, thanks to legendary cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish), so that you want to run forever and can almost smell the smoke in the air as the voiceover narration informs us.

Traveling lightning rod salesman Tom Fury (Royal Dano) tells Jim that his house is in need of protection. While Tom is trying to make a sale, he is also foreshadowing the danger that will threaten Jim and his friend later on. Something Wicked offers a loving, romantic look at small-town life as we meet key townsfolk who all know each other. This sets up the fragility of the town’s infrastructure and how one dark storm can threaten it, giving Will (and us) his “first glimpses into the fearful needs of the human heart,” as his older self sagely observes. Clayton introduces all of these personable pillars of the community so that we become invested in them and this establishes just what is at stake. This pays off later on so that we are put on edge when we see them in peril as their very dreams and desires are preyed upon in order to take their souls.

One night, a train brings a carnival to town. Jim and Will sneak out of their respective homes to take a look at the train as it arrives. All the tents and attractions are erected simultaneously as if by magic. The boys soon meet Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), the proprietor of the Pandemonium Carnival and an enigmatic figure full of mystery and magic. We get a little teaser of this when Jim and Will first meet him and notice a constantly moving and swirling tattoo on his arm. They also witness other strange magic at work, like a striking carousel that goes in the opposite direction, causing those that ride it to get younger. Mr. Dark subsequently uses the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), “the most beautiful woman in the world,” to bewitch and seduce the men in the town.

Something Wicked is chock full of gorgeous cinematography, like the shot of the carnival at night in silhouette while dark storm clouds gather overhead. There is also disturbing imagery like when Jim and Will discover the latter’s head decapitated by a guillotine or a menacing green mist that pursues the boys as they run home or the onslaught of spiders that invade Jim’s bedroom, reaching a nightmarish pitch until they wake up.

Thankfully, Shawn Carson and Vidal Peterson aren’t the typical precocious child actors, but instead deliver thoughtful performances as our adventurous protagonists that become involved in a battle for the very soul of their town hanging in the balance as they must stop Mr. Dark with the help of Will’s father, Charles (Jason Robards), the town’s librarian.

He’s a wise, older man with a heart condition and Clayton offers a visual cue as to the man’s fragile health by placing a coffin in the background of a scene with the librarian looking rather apprehensive in the foreground. The always reliable Jason Robards anchors the film with his trademark gravitas as he plays a man full of regret over things in his life he didn’t do. There is a nice scene between Charles and Will where he confesses his regrets. It is a touching moment with a tinge of melancholy that sets up the librarian’s desire to redeem himself. Robards brings a world-weariness to a man that has never left his town and never took any real chances in life.

Jonathan Pryce is well-cast as the malevolent Mr. Dark, using black magic to take the souls of the townsfolk. The actor has loads of charisma with a commanding voice that has a cultured, Shakespearean air to it. He has nice scene with Robards where Mr. Dark exerts his influence to question Charles about Jim and Will’s whereabouts. It’s great to see two talented actors like them square off against each other. They manage to top this scene with another where they quote literature to each other as a way of verbal sparring with some exquisitely written dialogue being brought wonderfully to life.

The roots for Something Wicked This Way Comes originated from Ray Bradbury’s childhood: “When I was seven years old, one of my cousins died, way out in the farm country. At three a.m., I would wake up and hear a locomotive passing by in the distance. For me, that was like the sound of the dead going by in the night. I never forgot it.” He always loved circuses and magic and this resulted in a short story entitled, “The Black Ferris” which was first published in pulp magazine Weird Tales in May 1948. Ten years later, actor Gene Kelly wanted to work with the author. The two men met and after screening Invitation to Dance (1956), Bradbury wrote an 80-page treatment entitled, Dark Carnival. Kelly wanted to direct it, but was unable to secure financing and it was shelved.

Bradbury took his treatment and adapted it into a novel called Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962. Over the years it sold more than 18 million copies and Hollywood came calling with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler buying the rights and the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Mark Rydell and Steven Spielberg considered to direct at one point or another. Peter Douglas, son of actor Kirk Douglas, met Bradbury in a bookstore in 1975 and subsequently bought the film rights to the novel. Douglas made a deal with Paramount Pictures and then-president David Picker, but with the stipulation that Bradbury, who had a close affinity for his novel, would adapt it himself. However, Picker left, according to Clayton, after an “alleged feud” between him and studio chairman Barry Diller and his replacement wasn’t interested in the project. After a year of it being in turnaround, Douglas was in danger of losing his option on the book and his father stepped in, giving him the money to renew the option.

Douglas met with director Jack Clayton, who was interested, and then approached Walt Disney Productions in 1981. Studio executives were looking for “something unusual,” according to Bradbury, and agreed to bankroll the film. The author had always wanted to work at Disney. In 1962, Bradbury had sent Walt Disney a copy of his novel and got a letter back saying that he liked it, but felt it wasn’t right for the studio. While working on the screenplay with Clayton, Bradbury realized that he had to be ruthless and this resulted in omissions, the diminishing of screen-time for characters he loved, like the Dust Witch, and images from the book that they felt could not be translated onto film.

Almost $3.5 million (from a $16 million budget) worth of sets were constructed by production designer Richard MacDonald (Cannery Row). It was a challenge casting child actors for the roles of the two main children because Clayton preferred to work with kids that had very little experience. Principal photography began in September 1981 on the back lot of Disney Studios. Originally, Clayton had planned to shoot in a town in Texas, but it was too close to rainy season and shooting on a back lot allowed them to stay on schedule. During filming, Bradbury kept his distance, but snuck onto the set “at sunset, just to stand in the band cupola … It was just great to be surrounded by this small town, I felt I was home.” Shooting lasted 63 days, which Clayton felt was too fast, especially dealing with special effects.

Almost a year after principal photography ended, several scenes were reshot and Disney spent $3 million on post-production special effects, utilizing the same computers that created the effects for Tron. It took so long because during filming, Disney’s most experienced visual effects artists were busy with Tron and during that time the effects tests were always wrong. It was only when they were done with Tron that Clayton was able to get proper effects done for his film. A few years after the film’s release, actor Jonathan Pryce was rather candid about the problems the production ran into. He said that Something Wicked “wasn’t conceived as a special effects film because the budget originally wasn’t there.” He claimed that Clayton originally envisioned a film about atmosphere “implied by people’s fears, and through the actors and acting,” and this resulted in Disney executives panicking because they assumed audiences wanted to see a special effects-heavy film like Star Wars (1977). Pryce also claimed that the studio spent millions of dollars on computer graphics that weren’t used in the final cut.

Something Wicked This Way Comes enjoyed mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Without Jason Robards as the father who has disappointed Will, and is given a chance to redeem himself through the evil that the carnival creates, the movie might be nothing but eerie.” However, in his review for Starlog, author Alan Dean Foster wrote, “Something Wicked gives us a charming remembrance of Midwestern boyhood, but it doesn’t terrify us. The evil in Something Wicked does not go bump in the night without first saying, ‘Excuse me.’”

Some films only affect you as a child, benefitting from being seen at an early, impressionable age, and lose their power as you get older. This is not the case with Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is an enthralling dark fantasy – a horror film for children yet will appeal to adults as well. Careful what you wish for because you just might get it is the film’s central theme. There is no easy way to realizing one’s dreams. They should be achieved in their own natural way, but that should be left up to the individual, not dangled in front of them like some kind of carrot, dazzling them so that they don’t think of the consequences. Something Wicked is a fantasy horror film not afraid to expose children to the darkness of the world and doesn’t do it some sanitized way, but one that put its youthful protagonists in real danger while imparting important life lessons.


Lofficier, Randy and Jean-Marc. “Jack Clayton: Directing Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Starlog. June 1983.

Lofficier, Randy and Jean-Marc. “Ray Bradbury: Weaving New Dreams and Old Nightmares at Disney.” Starlog. July 1983.

Pirani, Adam. “Jonathan Pryce: The Boy from Brazil.” Starlog. April 1986.

Szalay, Jeff. “Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Starlog. May 1983.