By Josh Rottenberg
Updated July 28, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jasin Boland

The Bourne Files

  • Movie

Just how improbable a franchise has the Bourne series been? Matt Damon, killing machine — let’s start there. Before taking on the role of amnesiac black-ops assassin Jason Bourne, Damon, with his all-American, Ivy League looks, was no one’s idea of a badass action hero. Good Will Hunting was one thing, manhunting was another. Throw in the fact that the cloak-and-dagger genre had grown cold in the post-Cold War era — and that author Robert Ludlum’s Bourne potboilers had been airplane-reading favorites back when you could still smoke on planes — and you can see why, when The Bourne Identity hit theaters in 2002, few were anticipating sequels.

Five years later, on the eve of the Aug. 3 release of The Bourne Ultimatum, we can sit down with a new, tricked-out three-disc set of the first two Bourne films and understand why moviegoers fell for them. Directed with startling immediacy by Doug Liman (Swingers), The Bourne Identity revitalized the spy flick by placing its angsty hero firmly in the real world, with relatable emotions and recognizable laws of physics replacing martinis and high-tech gizmos. As Bourne races across Europe, trying to piece together his past and outwit other assassins, Liman doesn’t skimp on fight scenes and car chases. But his focus — evidenced by a deep bench of classy supporting actors like Chris Cooper and Clive Owen — is on creating believable characters. 2004’s Bourne Supremacy, helmed in gripping documentary style by Paul Greengrass (United 93), doesn’t tinker much with the formula of its predecessor but takes things in a grimmer direction, as Bourne becomes increasingly torn between his drives for redemption and revenge.

As for which is the better movie, I’ll go with the first, if only for the invigorating presence of German actress Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) as Bourne’s unwitting accomplice and eventual lover. The films sometimes trip over creaky cinematic conventions — jargon-spouting CIA guys staring at computers, standard-issue cat-and-mouse maneuvers. But when Potente, standing in for non-superspies like us, shares the screen with Damon, the franchise shatters conspiracy-thriller clichés to a degree we haven’t seen since ’70s classics like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View.

The Bourne Files‘ 45 minutes of new extras add little to our appreciation of the films; unless you’re a hardcore Ludlum nut, three featurettes exploring the late author’s life and work will induce a Bourne-like state of amnesia. But the previously issued extras on the first two discs are generous — directors’ commentaries, deleted scenes, and much more — and above par. And with a series this smart and flat-out fun, any excuse is a good one to be Bourne again. Identity: A- Supremacy: B+

+ In 1962, Bourne author/former actor Robert Ludlum founded the first-ever year-round theater in a shopping center: Playhouse-on-the-Mall in Paramus, N.J., showcased plays like Hamlet and stars like Bette Midler, Alan Alda, and Rock Hudson before its mid-’80s close.

The Bourne Files

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 228 minutes