(Please note: This article will have spoilers for all five Bourne movies.)
In 2002 The Bourne Identity was a breath of fresh air in the action movie genre. It started not with some unstoppable superhuman but a guy left for dead in the water with three bullets in his back. When a French fishing boat pulls him out of the water it’s unclear if he’s even alive. When he wakes up he has no idea who he is. He is as clueless as the audience as to why he’s been shot in the back. We learn about Jason Bourne as he learns about himself. And thanks to director Doug Liman’s documentary-style of filmmaking The Bourne Identity felt more realistic and intimate than most action movies.
At the time, it was not clear that Matt Damon could even pull off an action movie. He was as untested as Bourne himself was clueless. In the first real action scene, we see Bourne take down two cops in a park. He seems as surprised as we are at his skills thanks to his amnesia but this worked on another level in that we didn’t know Matt Damon was capable of that sort of action at all.
The moment when the movie really changed things was when Bourne is being hunted in the US Embassy. The building goes into lockdown. Bourne decides to go up rather than down. He escapes the view of the guys with guns. And then rather than just cutting to him being on the ground, they show exactly how he gets down to the ground. Whatever happened in this movie we knew that it was going to be practical and more realistic than what we had seen in the last James Bond movie. (To see the influence of the Bourne franchise, watch Die Another Day, the last James Bond movie to come out before Bourne Identity. Now watch Casino Royale. Daniel Craig’s Bond movies have more in common with Bourne than any of the other Bond movies.)
While it’s easy to give director Doug Liman and star Matt Damon the lion’s share of the credit for the success of The Bourne Identity, I believe that the reason the movie works as well as it does is the script by Tony Gilroy. His loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel updated it for present day audiences while leaving room for drama without sacrificing pace. Gilroy’s script is what holds the movie together.
Lastly, The Bourne Identity is aided by one of the best casts ever assembled for an action movie. In addition to Matt Damon, you have Fanke Potente, Julia Stiles, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Clive Owen. Eagle-eyed viewers might even notice Walton Goggins as a CIA analyst. The talent on display in The Bourne Identity is practically an embarrassment of riches. It just works.
The Bourne Identity worked so well that the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy came out only two years later. Supremacy retained the surviving cast of the first movie and Tony Gilroy as screenwriter but lost director Doug Liman. In his place was Paul Greengrass. Greengrass was selected because of his work on the movie Bloody Sunday. He also brought a documentary-style feel to his movies using handheld cameras in almost every shot. It also added Joan Allen as the smart, capable, but moral Pamela Landy.
At the end of Identity, Jason Bourne makes the following promise: “I swear to God, if I even feel somebody behind me, there is no measure to how fast and how hard I will bring this fight to your doorstep. I’m on my own side now.” The Bourne Supremacy is the fulfillment of that promise. In what was a complete surprise to audiences Fanke Potente’s character is killed by an assassin gunning for Bourne in a plot to frame Bourne for a hit in Berlin. His response is swift, methodical, and unrelenting. The Bourne Supremacy continued the trend of having a highly skilled, highly motivated hero we absolutely sympathize with.
If you just watch the first two films, you have a complete story. From a storytelling perspective there is no need for a third movie. Indeed, even the filmmakers themselves at the time thought it was going to be the final movie in the series. But Hollywood loves nothing more than to greenlight a sequel to a successful movie. And so it wasn’t too surprising when in 2007 The Bourne Ultimatum came out. What was surprising was just how good Ultimatum turned out. Everyone from the previous movie returned for this one including director Paul Greengrass. Tony Gilroy was less involved in the script because he was working on his own movie, Michael Clayton but his presence is felt. One of the more innovative things about The Bourne Ultimatum is that the majority of the movie takes place before the end of The Bourne Supremacy. This effectively means that the last time we see Bourne active is actually in 2004. Like the previous sequel, everyone who didn’t die is still in this movie. Also added to the CIA’s roster are David Straithairn and Scott Glenn. This gives the Bourne movies an almost episodic feel. It’s not just Bourne who is the same, but so are the people chasing him. And when new characters pop up they’re working with already established characters. You get a sense of continuity and realism with this approach. The Bourne Ultimatum ends as the first movie began: With Bourne in the water shot in the back. There’s a pleasant symmetry to this. And with Bourne having learned his real name and having his memories fully come back, this really does seem like the perfect end point for an incredibly well done action spy movie franchise.
Much like how the folks at the CIA could not leave Jason Bourne alone, Hollywood similarly felt that the Bourne movie franchise needed to continue. Unfortunately for them Matt Damon wasn’t interested if Paul Greengrass wasn’t interested and they could not find a script that they agreed on. So screenwriter Tony Gilroy wrote a Bourne movie without Jason Bourne in it. He also directed this one. Most critics and fans alike see The Bourne Legacy as a misstep in an otherwise unblemished franchise. I disagree.
The Bourne Identity was about a government assassin gone rogue. The Bourne Supremacy was about covering up a conspiracy and using Bourne as the scapegoat. The Bourne Ultimatum was about blowing the lid off of the clandestine operations that resulted in Bourne. The Bourne Legacy was about the people in charge of those clandestine operations doing damage control and covering their asses. Each of these plot turns was informed by the previous one.
It’s less obvious than Ultimatum, but Legacy is also a nested sequel. Much of what happens in the movie is happening during the events of Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum. Instead of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne we have Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross. He doesn’t have amnesia. He isn’t an everyman. And he isn’t all that likable. He’s more like the operatives who are sent after Bourne than like Bourne himself. Though most of the cast of the movie is new (including Edward Norton as a dogged CIA guy), we still see glimpses of the characters we have gotten used to from the CIA. The Bourne Legacy is easily the weakest of the first four Bourne movies. It definitely has its flaws. But it still feels like a movie that takes place in the Jason Bourne world. This is especially true if you watch it directly after watching the first three movies.
And now we come to Jason Bourne, the fifth movie in this franchise. The good news is that Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon are back. So is Julia Stiles who was notably absent in Bourne Legacy. But those three people are the only ones left. Edward Norton, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and David Straithairn though all established CIA people who did not die in the previous movies are nowhere to be found. They are not even mentioned. Also for the first time in the franchise, Tony Gilroy has no involvement in the script and it shows.
The movie starts with the one punch fight scene most of us saw in the Super Bowl ad earlier this year. Jason Bourne has apparently decided to spend his time in bareknuckle fighting in Greece for some reason. Meanwhile former CIA handler Nicky Parsons has hooked up with some German hacker. She’s in Iceland hacking her old employer in an effort to expose all of their clandestine programs. This leads the CIA to start tracking her down.
Nicky then goes to Greece where she meets up with Bourne. How she knew where he was is unclear, but it turns out she has information about Bourne’s father, a guy who has never been mentioned before. (Somehow the characters played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Albert Finney never thought that telling Bourne his Dad started the program he’s in was a good idea for some reason.) But the CIA is on their tail now and so they’ve got to run before much of anything can be explained. During the chase Nicky gets killed by an operative gunning for Bourne in what is an echo from Bourne Supremacy. Except this is not just any operative. This is a guy whose cover was blown thanks to Bourne’s antic years ago and as a result he was tortured for two years. It also turns out that this guy killed Bourne’s father. If these sound like weak motivations we’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred other movies and TV shows, they are.
Over the course of the movie we learn that Jason Bourne’s father initiated the Treadstone Program and that he was killed by The Asset (they never give the guy a name) when he wanted to expose it to stop his son from being a part of the program. Can you find the logic problem in this? If the first program was Treadstone (and they say that it is), where exactly did The Asset come from? Sure, the CIA had assassins before Treadstone, but they make it clear that The Asset is part of Blackbriar, a program that took place after Treadstone. And I suppose one could argue that this guy was recruited from whatever program he was in at the CIA into Blackbriar except that’s never mentioned and that does not seem to be how those programs have ever worked.
Tommy Lee Jones heads up the CIA folks after Bourne this time around. He plays the director of the CIA and we’re told he’s been in it since the beginning despite the fact that his character has never been mentioned. His protégé is a young woman played by Alicia Vikander, an excellent actress who did amazing work in last years Ex Machina. She’s the head of cyber security and inexplicably someone in her 20s with the credentials of someone twice her age. Like Julia Stiles and Joan Allen before her she does not want to kill Bourne. She wants to save him.
It’s worth noting here that Julia Stiles has been in three Bourne movies and in each of them her character’s connection to Bourne has grown. In fact in The Bourne Ultimatum there is a line where it sounds as though their relationship may have at one point been more than just professional. Nicky and Bourne have a connection and a past. She’s also someone who may have helped Bourne but could easily be seen as retaining loyalty to the CIA. In other words, Nicky Parsons as the protoge of Tommy Lee Jones’s character makes a lot more sense. There is something more than a little disturbing about a franchise killing off one female hacker character and then introducing another female hacker who happens to be seven years younger. Apparently Universal is under the impression that 35-year-old Julia Stiles has reached her last fuckable day while 46-year-old Matt Damon continues on. (Fun With Math: Matt Damon was 18 years old and had been in his first movie when Alicia Vikander was born.)
If the gigantic plot holes and obvious sexism is not enough to cement this movie as the worst of the franchise, the action sequences in Jason Bourne solidify it. Whether it’s ultra-shaky-cam or the most ridiculous car chase since A Good Day To Die Hard, whatever lessons had been learned in the previous movies are completely forgotten in this one. At the end of the climactic car chase in which 170 cars are destroyed, the final crash is so absurd that my girlfriend and I both laughed out loud in the theater.
I almost forgot to mention a subplot regarding some sort of social media app that is actually a CIA program to ‘spy on everyone’. (It’s almost like they’re unaware that the NSA already does this.) There’s a scene in this movie in which the head of a social media giant tells an audience how internet privacy is vitally important and no one will be spying on you using his system. This is followed by this very same character having lunch in public at a restaurant with the director of the CIA. If there were one photo of the CIA director talking with Mark Zuckerberg how fast do you think Facebook shares would tank? If you can figure this out, why can’t anyone who worked on this movie figure it out?
The more I think about Jason Bourne the more I want to pretend that it never happened. I mentioned A Good Day To Die Hard before and it’s appropriate. Both movies are the fifth entry into a franchise that should have ended years ago. Both are easily the worst of the bunch. Both seem to have forgotten what made the franchise good in the first place. And both are movies you would have to pay me to watch again.
– Jack Cameron