Thursday, 24 March 2011

Spy movies are my favourite genre - and the Bourne Trilogy made me realise it

Spy movies have given me more pleasure than films from any other genre. (They are my cinematic equivalent of Rockabilly – probably not a great recommendation in most people’s eyes.)

I realised this sometime between 11pm and midnight two nights ago, while I was watchingThe Bourne Ultimatum for about the 83rd time. Not the whole film, you understand, just a big chunk of it – every time I see the word “Bourne” on the Sky EPG, I cannot prevent myself from tuning in (and only back out swiftly if it turns out to be the pallid 1988 mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain). I don’t really have a favourite - the Identity or theSupremacy will do just as well - I’m never quite sure which is which anyway.

Just look at what the spy genre has produced: The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, North by North West, The Mask of Dimitrios, Pick Up on South Street, From Russia With Love, Three Days of the Condor, No Way Out, Marathon Man, Day of the Jackal, Spy Game, Taken, Enemy of the State, The Lives of Others, The Manchurian Candidate, the Mission Impossibletrilogy (oh, go on – you know you enjoyed them!), True Lies (likewise),Casino Royale (the Daniel Craig one, obviously), The Quiller Memorandum, The Deadly Affair… and that’s not even including any WWII films or pretending I’m a fan of the Ipcress films or Notorious or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, none of which hit the spot for me.

And it doesn’t even include possibly the greatest of all television drama series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which was so utterly wonderful it almost makes me weepy with gratitude just thinking about it.

Now, these aren’t all equally great films, but there’s not one of them I wouldn’t happily sit down and watch anywhere, any time, whatever my mood.

And I know it sound like cheating, but some of my favourite films from other genres have all the hallmarks of the spy genre: paranoia, double-bluffs, subterfuge, masquerading as someone or something you’re not, deception, fear of detection – Invasion of the BodysnatchersAll the President’s Men and the BBC drama series, State of Play immediately spring to mind.

But it took The Bourne Trilogy (soon to be a quartet) to make me realise it, because, through repeated viewings of all three films, I have come to realise that they’re practically perfect in every respect. The Bourne films aren’t art; they tell us nothing we didn’t already know about the human condition. Jason Bourne doesn’t grow or develop as a character in any respect (he gets to know more about his past - that’s all). These films are pure craft, brilliantly constructed high-speed machines designed to allow us to forget everything that ails us for two hours by holding us utterly in thrall – the cinematic equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron: faster, sleeker and more brilliantly designed than any competitor.

So, why do they work so well?

Matt Damon is the ideal Jason Bourne (aka David Webb – which no doubt came as a surprise to 1970s Chelsea FC fans) – he’s a cipher: medium build; not ridiculously good-looking; not an overpoweringly good – or bad – actor; his character isn’t a superman – though in great shape and superbly trained; he’s the right age – young enough to be resilient, but not a callow teen idol; and he neither over or under-emotes – he reacts just enough to be believable, without twinkling charmingly or being impossibly emotionless. We chaps don’t really like or dislike him – we just admire hisdecisiveness: like a machine, he reacts instantly, but he doesn’t always get it right. 

The tone of the film remains constant: there is absolutely no humour. I’m not against the odd laugh, you understand - but Bourne isn’t a chucklesome sort of chap.

There are no fascinating, quirky characters for us to be tickled by or to provide our hero with unlikely allies: there are ordinary people and professional spies, period.

Apart from the occasional kindness of strangers (and there’s very little of that), he is entirely self-reliant: his training and his ability to react instantly are what keep him alive. 

The baddies don’t stroke white cats or have plans for world domination or suddenly step out of character to reveal themselves as rabid, carpet-chewing psychopaths (although Albert Finney comes close). They’re professional spies who thought they were doing the right thing, but didn’t know when to stop. 

The films are almost entirely free of sentimentality – we’re not asked to switch suddenly from Sarsons to Tate & Lyle. 

There is no overtly political message here: yes, elements of the CIA were operating a rogue policy, but the most senior CIA official in the film is happy to expose the conspiracy (she ultimately takes Bourne’s side). There’s no Hollywood liberal “isn’t America wicked” message here.

The love interest in the film isn’t impossibly beautiful (albeit very attractive - well, you’d hardly choose an outright minger!) or instantly smitten by the hero, or winningly kookie: brilliantly played by the German actress Franka Potente (Run, Lola, Run), she behaves as any sensible person would, so we don’t have to waste time wishing she’d shut up and cop a bullet any earlier than she absolutely has to.

The settings – London, Paris, Moscow, New York – are made to appear fresh and interesting without being over-glamourised or falsified: there are no accordions or balalaikas or beefeaters and the action takes place in convincingly real settings.

The pace of the films is breath-taking, but the scripts are so good, the acting so spot-on and the editing so expert that they never feel rushed or cartoonish. Quantum of Solace tried to emulate the relentless speed of the Bourne franchise – and came a cropper as a result. (A good example of a post-Bourne spy movie that copied its pedal-to-the-metal approach - and succeeded - is the excellent Taken, in which ex-CIA agent Liam Neeson tears Paris apart in a bid to save his kidnapped daughter from the clutches of billionaire Arab sex perverts.)

The Bourne fight scenes (especially the one where he has to defend himself with a magazine) and the car chases are the best I’ve ever seen. (The music’s good too.)

I won’t whine about the failure of Academy voters to festoon the first two Bourne movies with Oscars – but will admit to being slightly bemused by the fact that they failed to pick up a single nomination! The third film in the series, The Bourne Ultimatum, won for Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Sound Editing: it’s fitting that the only three awards to date should be craft awards.

The Bourne Legacy – the next in the series – is due for release in July 2012, and I will happily overcome my aversion to cinemas to go and see it. Can’t wait.

Funnily enough, I’ve always found the novels of Robert Ludlum – who created Bourne – unreadable. No idea why.


  1. Interesting, but highly provocative. What is a spy movie? Anything involving international subterfuge? Or political intrigue against the state? Adopting the broadest of definitions here are some more suggestions:

    - Cloak & Dagger [1946]. Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer. Fritz Lang
    - A whole bunch of James Mason films [Candlelight in Algeria and Hotel Reserve[1944], 5 Fingers [1952], The Man Between [1954] and The Boys From Brazil [1978].

    - The Man Who Never Was [Clifton Webb]

    -The Man Who Knew Too Much [James Stewart/ Hithcock 1956]

    -Pimpernell Smith [1941]. Leslie Howard and the wonderful Francis L. Sullivan [the Beadle in Oliver Twist and Jaggers in Great Expectations]

    - Scorpio [ Burt Lancaster/ Winner]
    - Foreign Intrigue [1956]. Robert Mitchum and Ingrid Thulin.

    - Passage to Marseilles [1944]. Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet, Lorre.

    - An interesting trio of IRA films : The Informer [Victor McLaglan/Ford], Odd Man Out [Mason, Carol Reed] and Shake Hands With The Devil [Cagney].

    Huge difference in quality, but all eminently watchable.

    And let us not forget the redoubtable Napoleon Solo and Illya Kyryakin TV series.

    I don't often disagree with you on matters of film, but your hymn of praise to the Bourne franchise and nods of approval to Mission Impossible and Taken needs some getting used to. Their principals are some of the most wooden, underpowered actors ever to have tread the boards. And then you are dismissive about The Spy Who Came in from The Cold [Whispering Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern, Peter van Eyck, Oscar Werner and Burton on 8-cylinders]. Come on, get a grip.
    Friday, March 25, 2011 - 07:45 PM

  2. I'm not sure what sort of range Matt Damon has but surely the whole point of Bourne is that he has been programmed into an emotion-free killing automaton and then emerges from that experience as the trilogy evolves. That would rule out most Hollywood stars, who would have set their agents on to the directors to change the first script to givee them a scene on how the death of Shep the family dog had changed them, with associated canine-related flashbacks.

    The Bourne Trilogy competes with Tinker Tailor, Spinal Tap, Little Dorritt and The Way We Live Today (the last two not spy movies admittedly) for that place in my travelling bags. I've watched all of them several times. I'm waiting for another 'must see again' to come along.
    Saturday, March 26, 2011 - 03:17 PM

  3. For me, spy movies are movies whose main character(s) earn or earned a living by committing acts of espionage for a government agency. (There are a few borderline ones on the my list, to be honest.)

    I left out WW2 spy movies just to keep the list manageable (and many of yours are set in wartime). I haven’t seen all the films you mention (for instance, Candlelight in Algeria and Cloak & Dagger – both of which sound good), but I agree with the ones I know, except for the James Stewart Man Who Knew Too Much – I refuse to approve of a film which features the wife of the hero singing “Que Sera Sera”!!! Besides, the Leslie Banks/Peter Lorre original is so much better.

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is probably a blind spot – it just struck me as overwrought: Burton just seemed too big an actor for Leamas, and I could never get over the line where he suggests he was befuddled after drinking two Scotches and half a bottle of red wine at dinner (more like two bottles of Scotch and half a dozen bottles of red wine in Burton’s case, one would imagine). As I haven’t watched it for thirty years, I shall give it another go next time it’s on.

    I agree with Ex-KCS – there’s a whole bunch of seemingly limited actors who are perfect for certain types of film. Matt Damon is a limited actor – that’s what makes him perfect for Bourne. Tom Cruise is, in many ways, a ridiculous actor who can be massively bad when stretched – but he was brilliant in The Firm, perfect for Mission Impossible and extremely funny as the film producer in Tropic Thunder. Is there any man alive who doesn’t occasionally feel a strong urge to bitch-slap Bruce Willis? Yet he was superb in Die Hards 1, 3 and 4 and The Sixth Sense, and several others. Probably the most limited actor in screen history, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was perfect in the Terminators 1 & 2. Horses for courses.

    Ex-KCS, I’m embarrassed to admit that I cannot watch historical drama series on television – I can read the novels, and I can watch the films and listen to them on radio, no problem: I just can’t watch Dickens or Trollope adaptations on the small screen. No idea why – and I know it’s my loss. On the other hand, I could watch Spinal Tap till the cows come home (ditto Airplane and Withnail and I). You obviously do an awful lot of travelling – I hope you enjoy it!
    Sunday, March 27, 2011 - 12:26 PM