Even before Doug Liman started directing spy movies, duplicity was always his preferred game. The entirety of his breakout film Swingers pivots on Jon Favreau’s character’s ability to pretend to be something he is not to get laid following a particularly disastrous break-up. His riotous, undervalued second feature, Go, hopped and skipped between different characters that end up at the same stupid rave, and much of the narrative hurdles that they clear to arrive there involve lies and keen, acute performance to hide their true intentions and past actions. Indeed, an early exchange in Go has Sarah Polley’s Ronna facing off with a bitter, poverty stricken mother who tells her “don’t think you’re something you’re not.” Everyone hides who they are on a somewhat regular basis, perhaps especially those who swear to be incapable of lying. Liman has become something of a master at mapping the constant collisions of the untamable, unpredictable inner self and the practiced, honed veneer of personality and the emotional aftermath of these collisions.
In his best movies, this leads to a ruminative, if often limited study of identity. The entire crux of The Bourne Identity is a search from an erased persona, an attempt to become more than his minute-to-minute actions as a skilled spy with amnesia. In almost any other movie, the idea of propping your story up through amnesia would be an absurd, risible narrative course, but Liman, aided by Matt Damon, make the absence of self feel paramount in the film and its spectacular action sequences. In the exuberant Edge of Tomorrow, character and identity are sliced away at through unending combat and hard work without confronting the things that make us human, most notably a finite death.
At his worst, such as with Jumper, the emotional core of his characters come off as flimsy, cheaply sold, and gruelingly familiar in every nuance of delivery and dialogue. Liman, nevertheless, has proven surprisingly adept at moving from major features for big studios to smaller, more political fair like The Wall and Fair Game. And though neither of those films are nearly as audacious and unbridled as their stories deserve, it shows growing ambition in the director who will be in charge of Justice League Dark and at least three of the most anticipated Tom Cruise vehicles on deck.
With Liman’s latest film, The Wall, about to arrive in theaters, I re-watched and ranked Liman’s movies, which have a surprisingly consistent tendency to be both wildly entertaining and compellingly thoughtful.I should note that Getting In, Liman’s first film, which IMDB lists as a video-only release, is genuinely tough to see these days and after a lengthy search, I wasn’t able to find a decent copy on home video to screen for this piece. If that changes, we will update this ranking ASAP.