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Everybody Loves Jason: Why Even Contrarians Like The Bourne Trilogy

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Universal Pictures, 2007]

Matt Damon’s furrowed brow is saving Hollywood. Gracing each of the three insanely popular “Bourne” films, Damon’s agitated wrinkles have implacably faced down an army of psychotic CIA stooges without so much as a sweat, and brought in nearly a billion dollars in box office globally. But the most surprising part of the trilogy’s world domination is its critical reception. “The Bourne Identity,” the first in the franchise, received grudging respect, but the recent “Ultimatum” is being said to “advance[s] the art of action filmmaking and will change it forever” — a quote not from an overheated fanboy after a press screening, but rather from Anne Thompson, the reliably insightful columnist for Variety.

And it’s not only Thompson who’s contracted “Bourne” fever. It’s also the hardcore cinephiles who vote on the Village Voice year-end film poll. “Ultimatum” placed 25th on the list, beating out critical darlings like “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “Sweeney Todd.” No other Hollywood blockbuster was even close — “The Bourne Ultimatum” probably outgrossed the rest of the list single-handedly. It’s also achieved a mainstream cult — enough so that the IFC Center is showing the complete trilogy during its January Midnight series. How has “Bourne” become the only gargantuan Hollywood franchise that’s impressed both mainstream and alternative presses (along with contrarian, smug bastards like myself)?

Most of the recent chatter about the series has focused on director Paul Greengrass’s controversial rapid fire editing techniques, but I think much of the film’s success has to do with Doug Liman’s original conception of the series (along with that aforementioned brow of Damon’s). Liman, director of the first “Bourne” and executive producer of all three, had just come off the successes of helming “Swingers” and “Go” and was given free reign on his next project. He chose “Bourne,” wanting to make a different kind of action film, one with a relatively modest budget of $60 million and a different conception of screen combat. In talking to the BBC about the martial arts used in the film, Liman said, “It is ridiculously efficient. You don’t break a sweat or expend any energy, you use your opponents energy against him. And we thought — that’s Jason Bourne, that’s how he’ll do everything in this movie. He’ll figure out the simplest, least energetic, most efficient way to get something done.”

All three “Bournes” have this emphasis on process, on Damon solving a series of puzzles as quickly and effortlessly as possible. It drops heroism in favor of a robotic rationality and a feel for the traumas of real physical violence. Jason Bourne, an amnesiac, cannot express himself through speech, so he does so through action — you can almost read his mind’s calculations through every blunt force gesture. Such attention to physical detail was a breath of fresh air in the action genre, which had veered closer to the self-parodic cartoonishness of the “Mission: Impossible” films. And since most critics came of cinematic age in the ’70s, the throwback grittiness of the series gave them ample space for the William Friedkin comparisons they love so well. Toss in some vague political commentary about civil liberties, which became groaningly obvious in “Ultimatum,” and there was more than enough to fill up a generous word count.

When Greengrass took over the series with the second entry, “The Bourne Supremacy,” he retained the general concept of action as puzzle solving, but elided much more visual information by cutting shots to shreds. While Liman’s “Identity” moved fast, it’s nothing in comparison to the latter two. David Bordwell, the prominent Wisconsin film professor, has measured the seconds per shot of the trilogy, and “Identity”‘s seems downright slow at three, while “Ultimatum” runs at a faster clip of two seconds per shot. But as Bordwell argues on his blog, it’s not the relative quickness of the shots that has bothered people — it’s the shots’ “spasmodic” quality. Greengrass’ editing style cut gestures and camera movements short, keeping viewers constantly on edge, always wondering what lies behind the next cut — but what it sacrifices is a coherent articulation of the geography of Bourne’s world. This isn’t to deny the thrills to be had at “The Bourne Ultimatum” (the parking garage smashup is a technical marvel), but it pushes this editing strategy to an extreme that drains the film of the power of its original conception. Bourne was a character who expressed himself through the economy of his actions. Now, what we see are abstracted shards of movement that are more interested in forward motion than character.

If, as Anne Thompson says, that this is the future of action films, it’ll be an exhausting ride with diminishing returns. But what marks the “Bourne” franchise out is its ability to garner this kind of controversy — one actually about a film’s style, a conversation that is so rare in modern film criticism but so necessary. While I think Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” was the more rewarding, there’s no denying that all three are films worth grappling with — and their influence will be felt for years to come, especially in the next cycle of “Bourne”-ian Bond flicks.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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