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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bond Vs. Bourne

With Quantum of Solace, it's become all the vogue to compare the Bond franchise to the Bourne franchise. Hell, QoS practically demanded that comparison, by bringing in the second unit director from the last 2 Bourne films, and staging many of their action scene in a way that was...ahem...heavily influenced by the style Paul Greengrass brought to those films.

Well, I certainly feel that QoS veered too far in the Bourne direction. But I feel that way because, in most ways, the Bond approach is better than the Bourne approach. I know that goes against a lot of the critical consensus (although I should note that the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way recently).

Don't get me wrong--I love the Bourne movies, I've seen them all multiple times, I own them all on DVD. So when I make this comparison, please understand that I'm NOT ripping on these movies.

But if you give me a choice between watching a Bond movie and a Bourne, 85% of the time I'm choosing a Bond. Here's a few reasons why:

A) The Bourne movies all have the exact same plot. Now, I've never read the books, so I don't know how closely the movies have followed Ludlum. But all three of the films follow the same damn outline:
"While Bourne tries to discover his identity, a high level CIA muckity muck decides he's inconvenient and tries to kill Bourne to cover up his own malfeasance. Bourne gets away and the bad CIA guy is stopped by a good CIA guy. Throw in a confrontation with another Treadstone agent."
That's it. We change the scenery, have a chase in a different make of car, but it's all basically the same stuff: Bourne running around avoiding being caught/killed while riveting CIA office politics really resolve the crisis. It's not a bad outline, but they've already re-used it twice.

Bond movies, on the other hand, have far more variety...yeah, you can come up with plenty of similarities (after all, there have been 22 movies). But Dr. No is nothing like From Russia With Love is nothing like Goldfinger etc. Even at the height of the rigid "Bond formula," at least the movies had different plots, different threats.

B) The Bourne movies are grim, humorless affairs. Especially after they killed off Marie in the first few minutes of B2. People complain how grim Licence to Kill was, or how humorless QoS was. But those movies look like Seinfeld next to the Bournes. There are more wry jokes in ten minutes of QoS than the whole of B2 and B3.

Sure, the Bond movies have often been too jokey, too humor oriented in the past. But the film makers realized that you need some humor to leaven the tension. You get none of that in B2 and B3...you might chuckle to yourself at how Bourne outsmarted someone (said chuckle cued by the "Bourne fooled someone music sting," because they feel the audience is too dumb to realize when he's done something clever, apparently). But there's no laughter, no levity...which makes the grimness of the Bournes hard to bear for two hours.

C) Bourne needs a companion. Killing Marie was a big mistake...or at least not not replacing her with another buddy.

There's a reason there's always a Bond girl, always a Doctor Who companion. We need to make our hero accessible, to give the audience an identification figure; hell, we just need to give our hero someone to talk to!! For far too much of B2 & B3, our hero is silent, broodier than Frodo but with nobody to vent to--is there any lead character who has less dialogue than Jason Bourne?!? It's hard to give us any character development when he has no one to interact with. An occasional terse phone chat with Pam Landy isn't enough.

He doesn't need to have a "Bourne Girl" every movie, but he does need someone, anyone, to interact with on a regular basis. Matt Damon is a fine actor, but there's a reason Daniel Craig's Bond has blown him away--Bond doesn't lapse into isolation, becoming a cool but remote automaton. That's why B1 was, to me, distinctly better than B2 or B3--Jason's relationship with Marie helped humanize the character, and gave Damon someone to play off of.

D) How about some villains? Yes, this is really just a subset of A) above, but it bears repeating. OK, so every single person of authority at the CIA is a corrupt bastard (except, of course, for Pam Landy)--we get it. The U.S. intelligence service suck. Can we move on now?

Bond's gone rogue more than once, but always in pursuit of an actual enemy, not to try to bring down M. And those instances don't happen in consecutive movies, anyway.

Yes, I understand Bourne wants to be "realistic," so we're not going to get megalomaniacal billionaires. But there are plenty of "realistic" villains out there--terrorists and drug lords and threats to U.S. security. Yet aside from the African leader Jason refuses to kill in B1 (and they never show us why he's "bad"), there's not a single bad guy in the movies except American operatives.

Hey, I'll concede that the USA sucks, is arrogant, treats its operatives like shit, yadda yadda (at least for the sake of argument). But seriously, does that mean the only villains we can show are American government officials? That's just boring, and shows a profound lack of imagination.

Not to mention, Bourne never gets to actually meet the big bads, so there goes the tension, character building, and cathartic confrontation the Bond films give us.

But hey, we get lots and lots of CIA office politics--isn't that what we all watch a spy movie for?

So when everybody makes their "Bond is becoming more like Bourne" comparisons, they're only looking at superficial elements, like editing styles. But Bond is a better character, in movies that work better dramatically...and aren't as repetitive as hell. When it comes to the more important elements of film, so far Bourne takes a back seat to 007.


  1. In the books, the arch villain is Carlos the Jackal, a real life assassin.

    Also, there's the assumption that every African leader is a dictator

    And what about Julia Stiles' character, albeit expressionless and useless.

  2. Anon--you kind of answer your own question there. I like Stiles, but she's so ill/under used in B3, in only serves to emphasize how poor the role was compared to Marie's in B1. Spare dialogue that never rises above the functional, gloomy and depressed aspect, and shuffled offstage as soon as possible.

  3. I think you're mostly right, but I reckon the last Bourne movie was a better movie than Quantum Of Solace. What the 'Bourne's better than Bond' crowd seem to forget is, that if it wasn't for the Bond movies, there wouldn't be Bourne movies, as they're a modern American take on the Bond movie. As is the TV show '24'. Hell, even Jack Bauer's and Jason Bourne's initials are the same as 007's!

  4. You're not missing anything not having read Ludlum; the guy was an unutterable hack, and made Fleming look like Salinger.
    It is kind of fun to come up with fake Ludlum titles, though, as he used the exact same naming convention for all his books.

  5. I liked the first Bourne film but didn't love it. However I LOVED the second one, loved how they had the balls to do the surprise kill in the first act, and it gave me everything I wanted in a spy thriller after Die another Day. But the third one brought nothing new to the table and made me realize all the points above. People who complain about all the JB films being the same obviosly have never seen the Bourne movies.

  6. What people seem not to realize is that Bond and Bourne are two completely different things. Bond is intended to be the (almost) perfect man, someone who can adapt to any situation, who everyone wants to be. Bourne is almost a parody of James Bond, except the dark equivalent: He has been made to be this man, but against his will or knowledge (at least we think this until the third film). His story is based on a trilogy, where yes, each movie has the same formula, with slight variations probing deeper and deeper into his past and who he is. But by the end of the third, we know it's over and can't go anywhere else. I believe that all three films are excellent movies, but if they make a fourth, it will be a betrayal of the story (I will not say franchise) and have absolutely no point. The Bourne miniseries is a look at how a man made to be James Bond realizes his afflictions and mistakes, and Casino Royale (and Quantum, to some degree) are how Bond becomes who he is and always was. While both are commentaries of the character to some degree, CR and QOS are pre-introspection, a commencement, while Bourne is a retrospection.

  7. there was at least one other villain; gretkev the russian billionaire

  8. there was at least one other villain; gretkev the russian billionaire