Tag Archives: Tony Gilroy

Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton

Usually when George Clooney shows up in a film, you get to see that smile. That mile wide, slightly mischievous grin is one of the chief reasons he’s such a charismatic onscreen presence, but in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton it’s nowhere to be found. This allows other aspects of his personality to come forward in playing the stressed out, introspective titular law firm fixer in what might be his best performance so far in a brilliant drama. His face is drawn and worried, his wide eyes taking in the ruthless corporate environment around him with taciturn angst and survival instinct of a cornered jungle cat. Michael has every reason to be worried not only in a general profession like this but also because of recent events. One of the firm’s top lawyers (Tom Wilkinson) is having a royal mental breakdown whilst in the thick of a high profile class action lawsuit putting billions against a chemical giant who are almost certainly guilty of what they’re being accused of. This is not good, not good at all and the the firm’s most senior partner (Sydney Pollack, so serious he’s scary) throws everything he’s got at the wall to remedy the situation, including Michael. Clooney plays the man almost as a guy who has chosen the wrong profession; to be a fixer like that I feel like you’d need a certain sort of cold detachment and near sociopathic level of apathy when dealing with such moral quagmires, but Michael is a man who, despite obvious efforts to stay one step removed, let’s his humanity seep through with every sympathetic glance and wounded exchange. Perhaps it’s Clooney’s inherent affability or a deliberate character choice, but in any case the contradictory portrayal works wonders and makes for such a fascinating protagonist. Wilkinson isn’t capable of giving a bad performance even in the worst films, his darkly comic unravel from learned man of law to unhinged mad scholar is a beautifully tragic arc and one of the tethers holding Michael in the swirling gale of tricky decisions and do-or-die chess moves he must navigate. Another is icy, robotic Tilda Swinton as a shady lawyer hired by Big Chemical to try and patch up things on their end. She unravels too, albeit in a less theatrical way than Wilkinson, but the noiseless, implosive confrontation she has with Michael in the third act is enough to knock anyone flat and stands as my favourite scene of the film. Michael is a family man with a young son who dreams of escaping this cutthroat netherworld and starting up a restaurant, a goal that the audience sees glowing on the horizon as clearly as he does thanks to the empathy inspiring performance. After all is said and done we witness some of the most simply unique end credits out there on a hypnotic car ride where both Michael and the viewers decompress and meditate on everything before, it’s a brilliant bit of the pacing puzzle here. This isn’t really a political thriller and can’t very well be called courtroom drama either, really it’s own thing. I suppose the closest is character study, but even that doesn’t provide a legible menu option for the meal to follow. Unique in atmosphere and character interaction, crisply written and directed by Gilroy, and acted to the absolute nines by Clooney without ever showboating or chewing scenery. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Ben Cahlamer

War.  Over the course of our history, we justify war to obtain that which we might not have access to, but need to survive.  In the eyes of others, we use war to protect the few resources we have from others. In the end, the more motivated group will overcome the meek.  For those standing up because it is right, it doesn’t mean that we must always bow down to the pressures of the powerful.  Sometimes, we find enough courage and conviction within our own morals to rightfully take back that which has been usurped. This is the basis for Gareth Edwards’ newest, but flawed entry into the Star Wars universe, “Rogue One”.

Word has reached the Rebellion that a cargo pilot defected with a message indicating the presence of a planet-killing weapon being developed by Imperial forces.  Wanting to authenticate the message, Gyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is coaxed into helping the Rebellion.  Joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), they ultimately undertake a risky mission to retrieve the plans for this weapon.

The story, written by John Knoll and Gary Whitta (“After Earth”, “The Book of Eli”); screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” series)  is fun, but ultimately flawed as it tries to develop new characters while remaining relate able to the existing universe.

It was evident that the intention was to create a dark, espionage-style thriller within two threads:  the first to assemble the team, while the second to actually commit the deed.  The challenge is that the story starts off so slowly and disjointedly that by the time we get to the second, more impressive hour, we simply shouldn’t care.  The story does tie up its own loose ends, but it also creates more problems than it actually solves.

The characters service the script effectively.  However, the majority of the character’s motives were demurred by the action-oriented narrative.  Felicity Jones’ Gyn clashed with Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor.  Although their backgrounds are not similar, they do ultimately share the same path.  It isn’t until the second hour that we see Gyn become a leader.  Mads Mikkelson’s Galen was sharp; his purpose clear and he was able to parlay with Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic:  their egos each got the better of them, but their paths and functions were also very clear.  Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe is a fun character, his presence a welcome, if sometimes irritating diversion while Jiang Wen’s Bazel Malbus looked stellar on the screen, but his purpose was ill-defined.  Although he grew the most and had the most to lose, Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook was the most essential of the supporting characters.  Forest Whitaker always looks great on screen, however here his character only serves as a bridge and ultimately, an ineffective bridge between the first and second acts, and while the levity was welcome, Alan Tudyk’s K2SO was a bit over the top becoming repetitive, even in the third act.

Fortunately, the wizards behind the camera truly work their wonders in most quarters.  Costume Designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon effectively bring us back into the Star Wars universe as does Doug Chaing and Neil Lamont’s stellar production design.

From the stages of Pinewood Studios outside London to multiple locations spanning Iceland, Maldives and Jordan, cinematographer Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”, “Foxcatcher”, “Lion”) really stood up to the challenges in front of him, giving the film the visual grittiness it needed while conveying the timeless sense of the space battles that have come to be a trademark of the Star Wars universe.  In a key scene, Fraser’s use of lighting serves to throw off the viewer just enough to allow the special effects technicians to do their magic making the scene that much more effective.

Continuing in the grand tradition of delivering a visual impact, Industrial Light & Magic’s work on “Rogue One” is, without exception, the highlight of the movie.  From traditional model effects work to CGI landscapes, John Knoll, who also served as one of the film’s executive producers, was up to the task.  Without going into too much detail, he and the talented folks at Scanline, Hybride, The Third Floor and Disney Research are to be commended in the look and feel of the movie.

Michael Giacchino provided a more militaristic score, using some of John Williams’ existing themes while largely creating new music for this adventure, which works effectively.

As brilliant as the technicians behind the scenes were, editorially, the pacing and tone of the movie fell flat.  It took no less than three credited editors, John Gilroy, Colin Goudie and Jabez Olssen to bring the full narrative into its final form.  In a slightly lesser role, Stuart Baird was brought in to massage it even further.  Where the script narratively fumbled, the editing could not recover it fully, washing out characters and moments.

“Rogue One” brings together two separate parts of the Star Wars universe in an interesting and diverse way.  Its darker tone is welcome however the jumbled narrative and editing bring it crashing down.  Despite it being fun, its flaws are too numerous.  It is Recommended.

Ben Cahlamer, an aspiring film critic, is a new contributor to podcasting them softly.  Although he spends his time helping hotels to price their rooms, he appreciates the finer nuances of films.  He has been an avid Star Wars fan since he was born, having seen Return of the Jedi on the big screen three times in 1983 and continues to look forward to the future.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

ROGUE ONE is the most surreal theatre experience of my life. Yes, it is a STAR WARS movie that’s very much akin to the seven previous films, yet it is completely different than anything we’ve seen before. In a very odd and perplexing way, ROGUE ONE may just be the best STAR WARS film ever made.

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Set months prior to the events in A NEW HOPE, we’re shown a world that we’ve never seen. The Rebellion is split in fractions, they aren’t painted with heroism, a lot of them are killers without morals all doing this for the greater good of the galaxy.

The call backs not only from the original trilogy but particularly the prequels perfectly thread the needle of anchoring this film in a familiar galaxy but with unfamiliar worlds and characters. The CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin is a flawless effects achievement, and brings a weight of establishment and riches to the film.

The new characters are a perfect addition to the STAR WARS’ cinematic canon. Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, and Forest Whitaker are all wonderful, with Ben Mendelsohn stealing every scene he’s even. Even if he’s matched up against the CGI’d Cushing or Darth Vader, he is the standout.

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Bravo to Disney for making a very dark and dreary film. They haven’t done this before. They simultaneously made a film about the horrific personal repercussions of war while organically sliding it into George Lucas’ cinematic timeline. Disney had everything riding on this picture; THE FORCE AWAKENS was easy. They had the original cast, a continuation of the saga story on their side, but with ROGUE ONE they created someone new and fresh inside of a franchise that honestly didn’t need it to continue forward in public consciousness.

The new score from Michael Giacchino is absolutely wonderful. He does complete justice staying true to John Williams, yet he takes major liberties with some tracks we are already familiar with. Gregg Fraser’s cinematography is perfection. This is the best looking STAR WARS film to date, without a doubt. The aesthetic will please diehard original trilogy fans because we’re back to the utter dilapidation of the Galactic Empire.

Gareth Edwards, Kathleen Kennedy, and Tony Gilroy all deserve acclaim and recognition for the film that they have created. But without the brilliant mind of George Lucas, we would never have gotten this film. For all the undo and faux outrage Lucas constantly receives, none of this would have been made possible without him.

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What makes ROGUE ONE so very special isn’t just the Easter Egg’s, the callbacks, references to BLUE VELVET and APOCALYPSE NOW, and the cameos, it’s a film that is about hope in its purist form. It is about heroes. It is about championing what you believe in regardless of the odds and sacrifices made. And for a lot of us, this is the exact film we needed at this particular moment.

THE BOURNE LEGACY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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With The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) came a satisfying conclusion to the popular spy franchise as its protagonist finally came to terms with who he was and how he came to be a government-trained assassin. Never one to let a lucrative franchise die, Universal Pictures soon started to develop yet another installment. However, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass – Ultimatum’s star and director respectively – felt that there was no more story to tell and bowed out, leaving the studio with quite a dilemma. So, they went back to the architect of the series, screenwriter Tony Gilroy. He had written the first draft for Ultimatum before two other writers were hired while he tried his hand at directing. He had made waves in the press about not being particularly thrilled with the direction the third film had taken and so I’m sure he saw The Bourne Legacy (2012) as a chance to make this franchise his own and no doubt itching to bounce back after the lackluster box office of his last film Duplicity (2009).

The problem Gilroy faced was getting people interested in a film no longer starring the series’ beloved lead actor. However, he wisely cast a completely different actor with Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) who, thankfully, doesn’t play a rehash of Jason Bourne. Gilroy also wisely acknowledges what came before by having the ending of Ultimatum overlap with Legacy. In doing so, this installment isn’t a remake but rather a reboot/sequel hybrid that exists in the same world created in the first three films.

After Jason Bourne exposed the United States government’s top secret operations, Blackbriar and Treadstone, the CIA bigwigs enlist retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to cover their tracks. This involves eliminating all operatives in other clandestine undertakings, chief among them Operation Outcome. It is one of the Department of Defense’s black ops programs that provides agents with green pills that enhance their physical skills and blue pills that enhance their mental capabilities. One by one, these agents are killed except for Aaron Cross (Renner), who’s been on a training exercise in the remote wilderness of Alaska.

The CIA also tries to kill the scientists that researched the pills by brainwashing one of them (Zeljko Ivanek) to shoot his co-workers, save Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) who narrowly survives. This is a chilling scene as Gilroy ratchets up the tension with the killer coldly gunning scientists down like some kind of mild-mannered (yet frighteningly lethal) Manchurian Candidate. Naturally, Byer and his crew create a cover story for the media of just another crazed rampage by a lone gunman. As it turns out, Marta originally administered Aaron’s meds and so he seeks her out to get more pills and get some answers, while Byer tries to kill them. Once they are on the run, Gilroy cranks up the paranoia factor as simple tasks like boarding a plane are a nerve-wracking experience as any fellow passenger could be an incognito government operative sent to kill them.

Aaron Cross is a much chattier character than the taciturn Bourne and, unlike him, Aaron knows exactly who he is. Once a good soldier, he now questions what he’s doing and why he needs to be dependent on these pills. This latter dilemma manifests itself more and more as the film goes on with Aaron conveying, at times, the desperation of a junkie looking for his next fix. With The Bourne Legacy, Renner completes a trifecta of high-profile action films that include Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) and The Avengers (2012). The supporting roles he had in those two films were just warm-ups for Legacy where he finally gets to headline his own big, Hollywood blockbuster and pulls it off.

Rachel Weisz’s Marta is not the damsel in distress she initially appears to be as the scientist quickly acclimates to her predicament – being on the run with Aaron – and even helps him take out the occasional bad guy. Not surprisingly, Aaron and Marta’s relationship is initially an abrasive one as he demands more pills and answers from her, but she soon realizes that without his help she will most certainly wind up dead before the day is out. It is an uneasy alliance that you would expect from two people thrown together in a desperate situation but over the course of the film they learn to trust each other. Weisz plays a convincing scientist, adept at spouting the technical jargon that comes with the role, but she also has some touching scenes with Renner as his character becomes as dependent on her as she is on him. The Bourne Legacy is a nice change of pace for the actress who hasn’t been in an action-oriented franchise since The Mummy films.

Interestingly, the idea of drug-induced government operatives eerily echoes, albeit on a much larger scale, a storyline in the fourth season of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy falls in love with a college student by the name of Riley who is actually a pharmaceutically-enhanced government agent, and much like in the Bourne films, this top secret operation is eventually exposed and then covered up by the government. Once Riley realizes the true nature of the operation, he goes rogue and even begins to feel the detrimental effects of the drugs he was on – his pain receptors shut down and he must seek treatment. Sound familiar? Now, genetically enhanced government operatives are nothing new. Comic book superhero Captain America is also enhanced through genetic engineering but the similarities between The Bourne Legacy and this storyline from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are quite striking.

For those not crazy about Paul Greengrass’ frenetic, often disorienting hand-held camera action sequences in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum, will be happy to know that Legacy is, by and large, devoid of them. Gilroy shows a good sense of geography and skill at choreography during these scenes, in particular, a dynamic and tense battle in Marta’s home between her and Aaron and a team of assassins sent to kill them. With this sequence – and others – Gilroy creates a real sense of danger and scary intensity as one feels that Aaron and Marta’s lives are really at risk.

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The Bourne Legacy could be seen as an opportunistic cashgrab by a studio afraid to let a lucrative franchise lie dormant but I don’t think Tony Gilroy sees it this way. In addition to delivering a rousing spy thriller, he raises some interesting questions about the culpability of pharmaceutical companies that research and create performance enhancing drugs and this is touched on in an early conversation between Aaron and Marta where he chastises her for claiming ignorance over the true purpose of the drugs she helped create, pointing out that they control him. Gilroy’s skill at writing smart dialogue comes into play during this scene and throughout the entire film as he creates an intelligent and exciting thriller that opens up the world he first helped create in The Bourne Identity (2002). That being said, he doesn’t deviate from the template established in the first film as our heroes are tracked with state-of-the-art surveillance technology by government officials barking orders in a control room all the while the protagonists traverse the globe looking for answers and evading the bad guys. While, Legacy is not as good as the first three films – Matt Damon was just too good at eliciting our sympathies and, at the time, those films were a fresh alternative to the Bond franchise – it is very well done and a promising start for a new series of films with a new protagonist to root for.

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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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.

Bourne2Like 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.”

Bourne3If 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.

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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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 (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.

bourne2Joan 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.

bourne3The 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 IDENTITY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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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 everyday 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 everyday 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.

bourn2.pngAt 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.

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.

bourne3At 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.