In franchise-mad modern Hollywood, it's become a tradition unto itself: Whenever you have a new installment of a series coming to theaters, the prior films will be re-released on DVD. With The Bourne Ultimatum hitting theaters August 3rd, Universal's released a three-disc set, The Bourne Files, that collectively packages The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004) along with a new disc of extras. There are two questions raised by any set like this -- namely, 'Do the films hold up?' and 'Are the extras worth it?'
The first question's easily answered: Yes. The Bourne films were perfectly-timed: James Bond, our number-one screen icon of espionage action, had descended into a sickly morass of high-tech high camp that made his adventures closer to the high-flying exploits of Batman or Wonder Woman (Die Another Day's invisible car, for example) than the down-to-the-ground espionage action of the character's roots. Directed by Doug Liman from a script by Tony Gilroy, The Bourne Identity was so grim and gray and wrapped in cynicism that it immediately stood out in contrast against the bright, light gloss of the Bond series. The Bourne Identity started with a hook that stuck for the duration of the film: A man is pulled from the sea. He has no memory. He wants to find out who he is. He learns that he was not necessarily a good person -- and that others want him dead. Played by Matt Damon, Jason Bourne wasn't a bulletproof superhero; he was a human being with armed with instincts and training and pure will, capable of doing whatever was required to survive.
The irony -- which grows more pronounced with The Bourne Files' extra features about the life, work and legacy of Robert Ludlum -- is that The Bourne Identity had little to do with The Bourne Identity. Gilroy's adaptation may be the textbook example of how to turn a bloated, unreadable book into a gripping, boiled-down story. Gone was Bourne's pursuit of the international terrorist Carlos; replacing it was a simpler story of flight and fear, as a man without a life discovers just how fiercely he wants to live. (Damon himself puts the appeal of the film's hook a bit more concisely and a little self-deprecatingly: "It's kind of every guy's fantasy, in a way: You wake up, you have amnesia, and it turns out you're kind of the biggest ass-kicker in the world. ..." )
The other element of the series on film that works -- and speaks to the tone and tenor of the times -- is the constantly re-asserted suggestion that America's intelligence agencies are not only up to immoral activities, they're doing so fairly incompetently. As Paul Greengrass says in one of the extra documentaries on The Bourne Supremacy " ... the thing about the Bourne films is that there isn't a bad guy -- there's a bad system." Identity revolved around CIA higher-ups Chris Cooper and Brian Cox trying to hide the existence of Treadstone, the assassination program Bourne was part of; Supremacy deepened that sense of distrust by suggesting that Treadstone wasn't just a highly illegal federally-funded hit squad -- but that it was also misused for personal gain by the people in charge. (That cynicism, well-established in the first film, isn't mere coincidence; Liman's father was one of the prosecutors in the Iran/Contra investigation.) In modern America -- with forged intelligence documents used as a pretext for war and CIA case officers exposed for political reasons -- this kind of cynicism isn't that much of a reach for the average person, and the Bourne series wisely takes advantage of it. (It's also interesting that the American people seem to vent their anger towards the excesses and failures of America's intelligence apparatus at the box office instead of the voting booth, but that's another topic for future discussion.)
Damon was also an excellent choice for the series -- not a muscle-bound hard case but a lithe, quick-moving presence, a different kind of action hero for a different kind of action film. There are action moments in the Bourne series where we get to watch Bourne thinking -- improvising, realizing what elements are in play, turning the opposition against themselves -- and Damon brings those to life as effectively as he drags us into the close-quarter, lunge-and-parry fight scenes. There's not a lot of laughs in the Bourne series -- there are a few nice amnesia gags, and some very catty office politics between CIA higher-ups -- but they're not without humanity. Casting Run Lola Run's Franke Potente as Bourne's accidental comrade-in-arms and then lover was also an excellent call -- Potente's not a conventional leading woman and her unconventional appeal gives her scenes opposite Bourne an impressive, very different energy.
Answering the second question -- "Are the extras worth it?" -- is a bit more complicated. The Bourne Files simply re-packages the earlier Special Editions of Identity and Supremacy -- which are, nonetheless, excellent DVDs, laden with making-of material and insights into the series. Identity features commentary from Liman, as well as mini-features on everything from fight choreography to casting, as well as "alternate" opening and closing scenes. (Fascinatingly, the introduction to the scenes explains that the alternate opening and closing scenes were part of other re-shoots that happened not because of audience testing or studio notes but, rather, in the aftermath of 9-11.) Supremacy has commentary from Greengrass, plus deleted scenes and mini-features on elements ranging from the films far-flung locations to the 'go-car' system used to capture Supremacy's gut-churning car chases.
The third disc contains the only new material -- a sneak peek at The Bourne Ultimatum, plus three mini-features on Ludlum's work and life, that mix interviews with Ludlum associates, the crew from the Bourne series and a number of interviews with Ludlum taken from The Today Show and the NBC-Universal vaults. (Ludlum regrettably passed in 2001, having met Liman and the first film's production team but not seeing the finished product.) The fact is that at with a total running time of perhaps 35 minutes, the new material isn't quite enough to serve as a reason to purchase The Bourne Files set if you already own Identity and Supremacy; if you don't own the films already, though, this set would make a welcome addition to the DVD collection of any fan of intelligent, well-crafted action. The Bourne films manage to look real and exciting, something too few action films even try to do, never mind succeed at; that alone makes them worth owning.