Visualising Cities: Part 6… JB Cities

Does anyone else think that it’s not a coincidence that Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne have the same initials as James Bond? It’s more than a passing homage, the two nefarious super-secret agent characters, Bauer and Bourne have more than a passing resemblance to a ‘revamped’ James Bond 2.0 type character, even if it is a more ‘gritty’ symbolism and less womanising, martini-necking hedonism. As much as I’d like to go into an in depth psychological character assassination of the triumvirate of JBs (although I’ll admit to think that Bauer would win in a fight), there is a really interesting discussion to be had on the way in which they navigate the cities in which they inhabit. I’ll know look at the three of them in turn, or more specifically, the way in which they visualise cities.

1. James Bond.

Having 22 films made is a clear advantage and you would be hard pushed to find any part of the world that been untouched in some way by the galavanting Bond is his various guises. Largely glamorous, hedonistic, opulent and beautiful, the places that Bond travels to are caricatured bad guy lairs; Cuban islands, the Thai Jungle or stratospherically over-the-top casinos. He also engages with his fair share of cities. London of course is his ‘base’. I say London, all we ever seem to see is the number 148 bus driving past the Houses of Parliament or the exterior to the MI5 building in Vauxhall. The only notable exception is the chase along the River Thames to the Millenium Dome (as it was back then, the 02 arena as it is now), which felt more like a covert tourism video for London’s Docklands than a engaging piece of action narrative (a video can be seen here of some behind the scenes footage). And herein lies the fundamental problem of Bond: too much travel not enough drift. The cities in the Bond films are backdrops and there to be traversed in smooth space. Non-places Augé would be proud of. The bike chase scene across the rooftops in Saigon (actually filmed in Bangkok) in Tomorrow Never Dies is a example of such lateral smooth passage through the city. Bond (and of course his glamorous female accomplice) glide across the rooftops with conveniently placed ramps and passage ways. There is the occasional comical scene of the bike going through rooms where unconcerned locals delicately weave, but the sequence is concerned with the spectacular. I have written about parkour and it’s relationship with the city, which was partly inspired by the Bond film, Casino Royale, where Sebastian Foucan, a renowed free-runner, is chased by Bond (Daniel Craig) across a construction site in Madagascar. The corporeal spectacle in this case highlighted the way in which Bond uses contemporaneous novelties to traverse the urban topologies (a far cry from more real ‘mundane’ parkour which is symbiotic with the city). The city and/or landscape always appears to be an after-thought, the supporting actor to the lavishness and implausibility of movement.

As such, the cities in Bond are lifeless and untouched. The stories of Bond require no interaction with his surroundings in any urban or geographical sense. Sure, he uses a tension wire from his belt to swing from a prison building in St. Petersburg to a tank yard (in Goldeneye), but he tends to go ‘through‘ these places as if they are not there, rather than interacts with them to pass across them. A point ossified in the same film when he ploughs a tank through a Quadriga statue, goes literally through an alley way destroying the building around it and then obliterates police cars. He has zero respect for the built environment.  It’s always so easy to move about cities if you’re James Bond.

2. Jack Bauer

Until the seventh ‘longest day of his life’, Jack Bauer’s fight against global terrorism was set almost exclusively in Los Angeles. Washington DC and New York then provided the backdrops to the final two days. The format of 24 lends itself to the exploration of cities at it’s finest. The first series, more accurately, the first 6 or 7 hours is perhaps some of the most gripping and watchable television ever crafted, primarily because of the way in which Jack navigates the city in search of clues as to who is planning to assassinate a presidential candidate, all set of course in real time. The real time setting gave us, for the first time (not really though as Nick of Time with Johnny Depp pre-dates 24 by some 6 years and has almost exactly the same storyline as series 1) a more ‘real’ way in which we drift around cities. Sitting in his car at a stop light, fighting his way through traffic, coping with shift changes and night time security staff, these are all temporal functionings of cities which are rarely depicted in other media unless necessary for the story. The travelling that Bauer does is of course purposeful, there is no time for drift when his wife and daughter have been kidnapped, but there is a sense that the city is full of surprises for Jack and his family. The rent boy who finally decides to help out Jack’s daughter or the bumbling cop who gets in the way of a pursuit, there are instances of interaction with the urban topologies. The city forms part of the narrative and his journey through, across and over it creates a covert sense of Los Angeles’ tempestuousness. Sadly this wains more and more as the series progressed and the characters movements through one of the most traffic-congested cities on the planet is laughably quick and without incident. The stresses and strains of the city as a striated space become glossed over, and movement becomes effortless. Los Angeles, as I have found out from my own experience, is an incredibly difficult city to navigate by any mode of transport, but this notion of city life is lacking in the latter stages of Bauer’s struggle with Islamic fundamentalism and government conspiracies. We begin to see less and less of Los Angeles as an actor with something to add and more a Bond-esque canvas which is glided across without consummate ease.

3. Jason Bourne

With only 3 films, this incarnation of JB has perhaps the least screen time to get across his mastery of the built environment. Even so, cities are exquisitely present in the Bourne adventures. Many people enjoy the Bourne films for their rather histrionic and overemotional fight sequences, but for me, the articulation of the city and the interaction therein makes them some of the most affable urban action motion pictures to date. From the scene where Jason Bourne descends the outside of a Zurich bank by leveraging himself with the contours of the building it is clear that the urban terrain will play a major role. Perhaps the most memorable (if only because it one of my most frequented transport hubs) scene is that which takes place in Waterloo station in London in the third film, the Bourne Ultimatum (some behind the scenes footage exposing how difficult it is to film in Waterloo here). In the scene, Bourne is instructing a journalist by phone to safety by using the commuters, shop fronts, store rooms and off-limits corridors. In some sort of UrbEx on Speed, Bourne eventually fails in his attempts to keep the journalist safe, but ends up escaping via the Tube. In another scene that imbues the images of the striated city is when he is attempted to evade capture in Berlin. By using the ‘direct’ route from one subway platform to the other, and the underside of a road bridge, he appropriates and moulds the city into his escape route, utilising the environment to facilitate his eventual evasion from the Police. Other memorable scenes of the war machine of smooth space include the rooftop chase in Tangiers which is an excellent depiction of how the striated cityscape requires gargantuan efforts to navigate at any type of speed.

There is also a tangible sense of the world city network in these movies. Not in the GaWC economic globalisation mantra, but more from a movement of individuals, and the tracking of that movement around the world. Bourne constantly moves form one city to the next with surveillance teams from the CIA tracking him all the way. While the main action takes place within cities, the meshing of the cities into one ‘super-spy’ network is all the more articulated because of the way in which travel is depicted. Bourne’s world is one based on cities.


So as you can probably tell, although I think Bauer would win in a fight (because killing him doesn’t make him dead, it just makes him angry), it is Bourne who is a master of the urban terrain.

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