I had read Robert Ludlum's novels on Jason Bourne when I was a kid growing up, since my Dad used to get his hands on all of Ludlum's books. And the Bourne franchise was the one thing that wasn't raped and pillaged cinematically in the '90s, so when Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), I was a little hesitant on the casting choice. Now, with three films and over $500 million domestically in the pocket, I'll readily eat my words. Not only because the films have been popular successes, but it's achieved the rare opportunity when each installment has been better than the last. With increasing talk of Damon returning for a fourth Bourne film, there might not be much new ground left to tread, but that doesn't mean the first three trips haven't been a great ride. With their arrival on DVD, the ride gets examined one more time.
The Bourne Identity:
Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) co-wrote the script with W. Blake Herron (Role Models), as Doug Liman (Swingers) directs. Bourne is found unconscious by a fishing boat in the middle of the sea, with two bullet holes in his back and a Swiss bank account number in his hip. He goes to the bank and finds tens of thousands of dollars, passports from several countries, all bearing his face, and a gun. With the help of Marie (Franka Potente, Run Lola Run), he gets to Paris, but soon discovers that he's being hunted by covert operations group from the United States, led by Conklin (Chris Cooper, Lone Star). Not only does this mystery man try to find out who he is, but the journey that left him in the middle of the ocean for dead is just as interesting. It involves espionage, murder, and an African leader who would prove to be dangerous if he revealed information about his allies.
If one were to look at the character arc of Jason Bourne as a whole, then obviously the first one has as much to do with discovery of his true self more than anything else. However, because the presumption of the material shows us that Bourne is a pretty violent, adept and powerful guy before he fully realizes it, Gilroy capitalizes on that assumption rather well, especially when showing us the Treadstone side of the house that tries to find and kill Bourne. Conklin activates all of his available resources, including a man known as "The Professor" (Clive Owen, Shoot 'Em Up). The search on the other side is almost as interesting as the quest that Bourne goes on. Almost, but not quite, as Bourne's quest to find out more about himself is compelling all the way through, crystallized in one sequence in a diner where he explains his talents to Marie, and he wants to find out why he knows them, but who taught them to him. This quest isn't without its faults; the blossoming relationship that Bourne and Marie have kind of borders on the usual "Stockholm Syndrome" seen in a hundred other films with similar plot developments, but as a whole, the quest overshadows this and is worth enjoying. Call it 3.5 stars out of 5.
The Bourne Supremacy:
Gilroy returns to write this film that Paul Greengrass (United 93) directs. We're taken two years forward, and Bourne and Marie appear to be happily living "off the grid." Bourne does have dreams which wake him up in the middle of the night, and Marie tries to help with them as best as she can. Meanwhile, an operation in Berlin is blown, and two CIA agents are killed as a result. Bourne is framed with these murders and is pursued by CIA Agent Pam Lundy (Joan Allen, The Contender), and Marie is unfortunately killed while her and Bourne are being pursued, sending Bourne reluctantly back to his old life. He tries to find out what Lundy has, almost attempting to kill Nicky (Julia Stiles, Mona Lisa Smile) in the process before confronting Treadstone officer Abbott (Brian Cox, Manhunter). He also has a Russian assassin hot on his heels as well, all surrounding a job that Conklin had him do off the record before he entered Treadstone.
The action is certainly ratcheted up more from the first film. Bourne has a better grasp of who he is and what he's doing, but when Marie is killed, you can sense the rage under Bourne's skin, though he doesn't show it. Damon has an excellent sense of conveying emotion by expression (see The Good Shepherd for another example of this), and as the film goes on, the fatigue that sets in on his face is visceral. You start to see it when he goes to Naples, it gets gradually worse in Berlin (during a compelling chase on, off and eventually on a train again), and more when he gets to Moscow. The end of the film finds him telling Lundy to get some sleep because she looks tired, but he should take that advice as well. With Greengrass' visual style, shooting often with handheld cameras and not relying on a static image, it helps bring the viewer in even more to Bourne's loss and to his vengeful journey. It's reluctant and a little measured, which might be due to Marie's time with him over the two years, but it's no less intriguing. 4.5 stars.
The Bourne Ultimatum:
The creative team all return for another incarnation. Abbott is replaced by Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, Eight Men Out), and Lundy's pursuit of Bourne has cooled off, but the film is set ten minutes after the end of Supremacy. Bourne is evading the Russian police, and is successful. Though some time later, we discover that a British investigative reporter is finding out more about an operation called Blackbriar, which is at the heart of Bourne's indoctrination. The source the reporter is working with tells him that Bourne is at the center of it all, the beginning. Bourne confronts the reporter, who meets an untimely fate by an assassin's bullet, and Vosen presumes Bourne is responsible for it. Vosen has his own ties to Blackbriar and thus his own motivations as well. Bourne is sent back on the run again, but he also tries to find out the beginnings of the path that brought him to this.
The basic components of the film from the second haven't changed, though what has returned is the taut action that the first two films were known for. If it was possible, second unit director Dan Bradley helped conduct two of the more thrilling chase sequences in recent film, one through the streets (and rooftops) of Tangier, culminating in a close quarters exciting hand to hand combat sequence, the other a car chase through the streets of New York City. Bourne's quest is slightly secondary compared to his thirst for revenge in Supremacy, but it's oddly no less compelling to watch. Four stars.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The first two films are in 2.35:1 widescreen, while Ultimatum in is 2.40. All are in 1080p for your enjoyment, and all are presented using the VC-1 codec in presumably the same transfer done for the HD DVDs. The film's action is reproduced accurately, and I forgot that Liman's first film was so grey and wintry in terms of its color palette, but the exteriors look good and the background detail is better than expected. The foreground image detail leaves a little something to be desired and the image tends to soften during some of the action sequences, but it's quite solid looking overall.
The Greengrass-helmed editions tend to lurk more in the darkness, and those shadows and the night sky look better in Ultimatum than Supremacy. The detail is a little more readily apparent in both films than in the first one, and the multi-dimensional feel on the exterior shots that cover the multiple international locales isn't too shabby. The Goan exterior shots in Supremacy pop with color and the Tangier shots in Ultimatum both tend to look sharp without over saturating. If you've got the standard definition discs, you'll be wowed by how the Bourne films look on Blu-ray.
The HD DVDs had Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 sound, save for Ultimatum, which had a TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. All three films are given the DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 surround tracks to stretch their legs with, the latter two being the ones to pay particular attention to. First, Identity sounds excellent during the car chase with the Mini in Paris, with quite a few environmental and directional effects through the rear channels, and panning is efficient. This film is a little more chatty than the other two films, but when Bourne is attacked in his apartment, the broken glass falls all around you, conveying impressive immersion. Identity sounds better than the HD DVD track and clearly better that the Dolby Digital one.
Supremacy and Ultimatum are different in that there is more action in them, but it also includes the music of John Powell, who incorporates a bit of rhythmic drumming through portions of the film. The drums pump through the subwoofer when necessary and sound outstanding, but please, that's not the reason why the last two films sound awesome. Directional effects like shell casings come from all areas, car chases have a nice low-end thud when cars collide or when explosions go 'boom,' and all of this occurs with dialogue that's strong in the center channel without any real adjustments to make. Supremacy is phenomenal in this regard, and Ultimatum is reference quality. Thank you lossless audio!
The trilogy's discs are packaged in individual Blu-ray cases inside a fairly sturdy box with silver packaging. A picture of Bourne is on the front and includes a small magnet to open the case up. Pretty spiffy, I've got to say. Each film has a U-Control feature similar to the HD DVD, but includes a third feature titled "Bourne Orientation," which looks at the events in the film at a certain point and tries to provide clues to subsequent events (providing the viewer hasn't seen the films before.) This plays beneath the scene, but the scene is on a separate cutaway graphic which looks nice. The picture in picture feature repeats much of what's on the supplements, with some storyboards and animatics occasionally tossed in. It's a light complement to the film. The "Bourne Dossier" is cool, with backstories on the characters as they appear in the film, and real-time status updates on fights, and is a nice interface. In addition, the Blu-ray discs include BD-Live capability. You get chat functionality with other registered Universal BD-Live users, along with the opportunity to record your own video commentary on the film, a la The Dark Knight. The other extra is a combat strategy game using cards online. However, as of this writing those features aren't live, comments will be forthcoming. In the meantime, let's look at each disc individually, shall we?
The Bourne Identity:
Liman contributes a commentary that is quite informative. He points out what's first or second unit photography, along with what shots were computer generated. He discusses how some shots came together, and explains the differences between the film and the book. His time on the independent film circuit is recalled and compared to the big budget studio time, and has excellent recollection on challenges he might have run into during the production. It's quite informative, and he includes an opinion on how Jason Bourne parallels to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. It's a very good track to listen to. The rest of the supplements appear to be pulled from the HD DVD. "The Ludlum Identity" (12:49) includes recollections from the author by friends and collaborators, particularly around what inspired him to begin writing. There's a lot of archival interview footage by Ludlum himself, and he's rather self-effacing through most of it. Others recall the levels of his work and what made it so memorable, and talk about his writing process. "The Ludlum Supremacy" (12:41) discusses more about the Bourne character than anything else, and how the character might have been slightly autobiographical. His use of real-life events is talked about, along with how he approached writing sequels for the character. This piece includes a few more clips from all three movies as well. Wrapping up is "The Ludlum Ultimatum" (23:57), which discusses how the adaptation of the films went down and what Liman wanted to do in the first one, along with the cast's thoughts on what made them work. These weren't as all encompassing as I thought, and I almost napped as a result. There's an alternate opening and ending, along with an introduction by Gilroy, Cox and producer Frank Marshall (10:46). September 11's impact on the first film is covered, and the opening tends to turn the film into a flashback of sorts, glad they went the other way with it. Four deleted scenes (6:58) and an extended sequence at the farmhouse (0:58) are next and are lackluster. "The Birth of The Bourne Identity" (14:32) focuses on the production itself and what the cast thought of the story when first reading and of Liman as a director. On set footage abounds as everyone talks about character motivations and rehearsing fighting sequences, but this is hardly all that informative. "The Bourne Mastermind" (5:44) covers more of Ludlum, but in a shorter timespan, while "Access Granted" (4:03) is an interview with Gilroy that frankly I wanted to see more of. "From Identity to Supremacy" covers this film while promoting the next one in 3:37, and "The Bourne Diagnosis" (3:26) looks at the psychoanalysis of Bourne. "Cloak and Dagger" (5:31) looks at the reality of the Bourne character from a veteran CIA agent, while "Inside a Fight Sequence" (4:43) shows Damon's prep for the embassy sequence on set. A music video (3:39) from Moby closes the first film out.
The Bourne Supremacy:
Greengrass' commentary is more abstract that Liman's was. He talks about character motivations and some casting choices, and inspirations for the film's locations. Damon's performance is also marveled at, and he talks about some of the subtle attention to detail that the film pays. He compares the Bourne franchise to the Bond one and discusses the differences between the two, and the symbolism and meaning of the story is explained. Overall it does have some information, but most of the track is spent narrating the action. Six deleted scenes (10:46) that are next are hardly revelatory, and from there, "Matching Identities" (5:23) has the returning cast sharing their thoughts on the new cast, along with discussing coming back to it and what Greengrass brought to it. "Keeping It Real" (4:58) covers the idea of bringing Greengrass into the fold in greater detail, and what he thinks of the material and his style in general. "Blowing Things Up" (4:00) covers the logistics of the Berlin sequence at Jarda's house, while "On the Move With Jason Bourne" (4:46) looks at the film's multiple locations and how those locations affected the visual look of the film. "Bourne to Be Wild" (4:21) looks at the rehearsals and preparation for the hand to hand sequences, while "Crash Cam" (5:58) examines the stunt driving for the Moscow car chase, and "how" Bourne uses a car during a scenario like that. "The Go-Mobile Revs Up The Action" (6:49) shows how the film uses a specially rigged car and the stuntmen discuss both the advantages and limitations of using it. "Anatomy of a Scene" (4:41) looks at the bridge chase and what everyone thought of it, while "Scoring With John Powell" (4:46) examines the film's musical intent with the man charged with composing it. "The Bourne Mastermind" (4:42) and "The Bourne Diagnosis" (5:35) are continuations of the previous disc's extras of the same name.
The Bourne Ultimatum:
Greengrass returns for a commentary on this film as well though sadly, it's about the same as his track on Supremacy. He talks about the story inspirations and some of the decisions that went into the casting, along with the occasional production tidbit. It's new information, though it's hardly enticing and it's delivered the same way as the first track was, which made it easy to tune out at times. Eight deleted scenes (12:22) are next, which includes some interesting continuity to Lundy and establishes Noah as the antagonist. "Be Bourne Spy Training" is basically a visual comprehension test which is fun for a second, but "Man on the Move" (23:58) is a little better. It shows the production in all of the various locations, and the crew discuss what they like/don't like about each location. The sound designer in Spain was my favorite. Some of the bigger stunts in the film are also broken down too. It's the closest thing this film has to a making-of piece. "Rooftop Pursuit" (5:39) covers the North Africa chase that the second unit shot for the film, while "Planning the Punches" (4:59) shows some of the fight rehearsal for Bourne's fight with Dash at the end of that pursuit. "Driving School" (3:23) shows Damon's automobile preparation for the car chase in New York, while "New York Chase" (10:46) spends its time on the shooting of the sequence altogether.
The Bourne Trilogy was one of the reasons why consumers went the HD DVD route, along with some studio format neutrality. For those of you who do own the trilogy in those small red cases, the supplemental material is virtually identical, and the only thing you'd be upgrading for is the lossless audio. So is paying upwards of $50 a second time worth three lossless soundtracks? Universal doesn't have any mail-in rebates in these things, so I'd say no.
For the patient others that waited and went the Blu route, your wait is well-rewarded. You lose virtually no supplemental material and gain a couple of things, including a really nice sounding DTS lossless soundtrack and some spiffy packaging, and upgrading from the standard definition copies is a no-brainer. So remember, HD DVD owners, pass, SD DVD owners, bombs away and with much gusto.