This week’s Reel Rumbles deals with the subject of kicking ass and taking names. And for this task there are no two men better qualified than James Bond and Jason Bourne. Both men got their start in the literary world – Bond in author Ian Fleming’s iconic novels and Bourne in the 1980 novel by author Robert Ludlum. Though both writers are now deceased, they live on in two of the most recognizable characters in all of literature and film. While many have taken on the mantle of Bond over the last 50 years, none have done so with the intensity of Daniel Craig, who had some big shoes to fill in his 2006 debut. As for Bourne, Matt Damon had a much easier time making the role his own, with Richard Chamberlain his only previous competition from The Bourne Identity’s 1988 mini-series. Both films are arguably the best in the history of their respective franchises, but which one wins head-to-head? Find out in Casino Royale vs. The Bourne Identity.
Their initials are J.B., and both men can do grievous bodily harm with his bare hands; but that’s where the similarities end. While James Bond is suave, sophisticated, and usually in control of his surroundings, Jason Bourne has no idea who he is. We first meet him as he is plucked from the waters of the Mediterranean by some Italian fishermen. Bourne (Damon) has no idea how he got there, nor how he is a master of foreign languages and handling himself with a gun or fists. In fact, it takes a few trial-by-fire situations before he is actually aware of all these tiny details. But as his situation worsens, he discovers that there is an entire network of government operatives, who want nothing more than to see him dead before he can regain his memory. This makes Bourne angry enough to find out just who he is, and with the aid of Maria (Franka Potente), he begins to do just that. There are a lot of broken bones, would-be assassins, gunfights, fistfights, car chases, and crooked government officials standing between Bourne and his happy ending. Will he get there, or do we have to wait till the sequel? It doesn’t matter because The Bourne Identity is such a good time, you won’t be ready for it to end.
And like this version of Bourne is an improvement over the mini-series, Casino Royale ups the quantity and quality of its action scenes by stripping down the legend and creating a much-needed return to the basics. In this reboot of the series, you will not find eye-rolling gadgetry, horribly inept character names, and dozens of moments where our hero, who had become nothing more than a cartoon character by the final Pierce Brosnan film, flirts dangerously close with breaking down the fourth wall between himself and the audience. If you ever read a page from one of the Fleming novels, you understand this is Bond the way he was meant to be before things got out of hand. Sure, it seems Bourne-esque, but Bourne also seems somewhat Bond-esque (again, the books, not the previous films). Call it the circle of espionage. In Casino Royale, we meet Bond when he is new to the world of British Intelligence. He has just attained “double-oh” status, and is off to match wits with a nasty international hooligan named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Bond is a cold, calculating man in this initial effort, until he meets Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a treasury agent assigned to keep an eye on him as he participates in a high-stakes game of poker at Casino Royale in the hopes of shutting down Le Chiffre and the shadowy organization for which he works once and for all. The film is clearly a solid foundation for the resurgence of a character, who, let’s face it, was on creative life support. And the emotional depth attached to Bond in his relationship with Vesper gives this film a little extra push that Bourne and Maria’s is not able to recreate.
Advantage: Casino Royale, 10-9
Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and W. Blake Herron’s adaptation of the Ludlum book is a pared down telling that should be commended for its efficiency rather than derided for brush-stroking. Ludlum’s book was an intricate piece of work, and getting it all down to two hours without undermining its strengths was something of a challenge the co-writers seem up to meeting. And while brevity is a good thing, and writers Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s (Plunkett & Macleane) take on James Bond could have used some of it in the third act, Bourne’s adversary benefits from the density. This Bond is bold and dangerous like any other incarnation sans Brosnan; but he also sports something fans hadn’t seen since Timothy Dalton’s films: humanity. Brosnan played a caricature; not a person with whom we could even remotely connect. In Casino Royale, Haggis brings back the Bond of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and it’s a welcome, and much-needed, dose of credibility – something every fictional character can use, even if he goes by the name of “Bond. James Bond.” It’s delicate material dependent on nearly seamless perfection to do right, and the trio meets expectations, taking another round from the clutches of Jason Bourne.
You may not see a stronger cast in a spy thriller than what The Bourne Identity brings to the table. Free from his School Ties-Good Will Hunting roots, Damon transitions nicely into the role of action hero. He is believable both as clueless victim and lethal weapon. He also has the right touch of rugged masculinity and female appeal to put butts in seats, even as he’s kicking them on screen. Franka Potente has the right touch of exotic beauty and average everyday girl caught in the wrong place at the wrong time to make this work, though their camaraderie doesn’t quite match what is presented in the duo of Craig and Green for Casino Royale. Still, with a starting lineup that includes dastardly Chris Cooper, a chilled and murderous Clive Owen, and the always reliable Brian Cox, you have enough material to steal the round for Bourne, 10-9.
Doug Liman didn’t have a lot of experience with action films when he signed on to bring one of his favorite novels from high school onto the big screen. Most remembered him only for Swingers and Go when his vision of Ludlum’s novel hit the big screen, so naturally, there was some suspicion as to whether he could successfully complete the genre-switch. He passes with an A. His action scenes are handled with breathless pacing and a hard-hitting edge. Use of soundtrack is appropriately bleak and edgy. Even when something is not “happening” on screen, his compositions keep us watching. It would be enough to win the day if not for director Martin Campbell’s undeniable feel for Ian Fleming’s source material. With Brosnan out of the picture, Campbell heads Bond’s Aston Martin onto the open road of intrigue and adventure the way few directors ever managed to accomplish in the original films. Bond kicks, jumps, shoots, falls, and claws, his way to some of the most thrilling scenes ever filmed, particularly the chase sequence along an airport runway as well as the film’s gritty opening moments, which continue full-throttle for around thirty minutes without a sign of slowing down. A close call that comes down to the wire, the edge switches back to Bond, 10-9.
The Bourne Identity came out of nowhere to establish Jason Bourne as an icon for a new generation. Had Casino Royale not revitalized the world’s favorite secret agent half a decade later, audiences of tomorrow could very well have been on their way to seeing Bourne as the new undisputed king of action heroics. However, Campbell under the guidance of new leadership at EON Productions elevated Bond to the next level, setting a standard that is perhaps too high for subsequent entries to attain. It’s for this reason the nod has to go to the legend:
Casino Royale – UNANIMOUS DECISION