It has been a long nine years since Matt Damon has graced the big screen as Jason Bourne. In one week, he returns as the CIA-estranged, amnesia-stricken agent in the upcoming self-titled effort.
Over the years, the Bourne films have mostly been met with critical and fan approval. The character has often been ranked right at the top of the best movie spies along with James Bond. The films themselves have also received an equal amount of acclaim. From the very beginning, Bourne was a likable, sympathetic character who must always combat his morals against his intensive, and lethal, assassin training.
The character was created by Robert Ludlum for his novel, The Bourne Identity, in 1980. He also wrote two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), before his death in 2001. The series was eventually resurrected in 2004 by Eric Van Lustbader who has since written ten additional novels. As you can judge by the 13 total novels, there’s no shortage of material for the film series to cover. However, despite the films sharing names with the novels, the cinematic interpretations have tended to differ.
Most people believe the 2002 film, The Bourne Identity, is the first of the franchise. In actuality, there was a two part television movie of the same name starring Richard Chamberlain in the title role that was released in 1988. The plot of the 1988 film followed the book closer than the later adaptation but failed to spawn any further sequels.
The first film that the majority of people remember is Doug Liman’s adaptation starring Matt Damon. Written by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron, The Bourne Identity focuses on amnesiac Jason Bourne who wakes up with bullets in his back. It turns out that he had been a part of a secret black ops program called Operation Treadstone. He embarks on a quest to figure out who he is while being hunted by the police and the Central Intelligence Agency following a botched assassination attempt. He meets Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) who assists him in navigating and evading his pursuers throughout the film.
The Bourne Identity was met with critic and fan approval despite differing from the source material. A great cast was assembled with Damon, Potente, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Julia Stiles assuming the lead roles. The chemistry between Damon and Potente was excellent and helps add to the personal rehabilitation the Bourne character undergoes. The action is fast paced and relatively realistic other than maybe one scene at the end of the film. Without spoiling anything, the only real questionable aspect of the story is how a cold blooded assassin botched his assignment. The logic is somewhat shaky. Overall, though, the film is definitely a satisfying watch. Unfortunately, creator Robert Ludlum passed away before the release of the 2001 film so he was unable to see the finished product.
Originally, there had been no plan to do a sequel but, of course, the success of the first dictated otherwise. For The Bourne Supremacy, the producers decided to replace Liman as director with Paul Greengrass due to Liman’s issues with the studio on the previous film. Whereas The Bourne Identity deviated from its source material, Supremacy had a different plot entirely with similarities being in name only.
The plot follows Damon as Bourne as he is set up by Russian agent, Kirill, played by Karl Urban. After a deal for some important documents goes wrong, the CIA, led by Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), believe Bourne to be the culprit after his fingerprints are found at the scene. On top of that, Bourne has flashbacks of his first mission for Treadstone and is once again on the path to find out more about who he is.
Supremacy is every bit as good as its predecessor and, arguably, a tad bit better. There are a few missteps in it, though, with the biggest one being Greengrass’s shaky camera shots. Every action scene is plagued by the shaky cam and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s going on. IMDb.com claims that the average length per shot is 1.9 seconds. Partner such short shots with the camera constantly moving and you can imagine how jostling so many of the scenes are. Also, there is a car chase sequence towards the end that’s set in Moscow. You’re not entirely sure what Bourne is trying to do at that point in the film and the chase seems somewhat unwarranted. Ultimately, though, The Bourne Supremacy enhances the story from its predecessor while furthering the main character and giving a degree of closure.
Despite being a satisfying conclusion to the character arc between Identity and Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum was released in 2007. Just like with the previous two entries, many fans argue that this film is the best of the series. Ultimatum even took home all three Academy Awards it was nominated for. The previous films didn’t even receive any nominations.
There was, however, some drama surrounding the script. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy wrote a treatment for The Bourne Ultimatum which was harshly criticized by Matt Damon. Up until he signed on to write and direct the next installment, Gilroy claimed to have never seen the finished film that he was credited for. Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi also received screenwriting credits on the final product.
The Bourne Ultimatum kicks off during the events of Supremacy which may be confusing to viewers initially. The timelines of the two films overlap until about the climax of Ultimatum. For the most part, the plot is relatively similar to events from the previous two films. Bourne is being hunted by Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who is trying to keep the secret Operation Blackbriar under wraps. Pamela Landy and Nicky Parsons assist Bourne in exposing Blackbriar, the successor to Treadstone. Albert Finney plays Dr. Albert Hirsch who was crucial to the lethal evolution of Jason Bourne while Edgar Ramirez plays a hitman named Paz.
Paul Greengrass directed the film and his shaky cam was back in full force. While it’s still an entertaining watch with some really great action scenes, the film is absolutely plagued by the camera. It’s uglier than ever. There is a would-be amazing fist fight between Bourne and Desh (Joey Ansah) but it’s simply too hard to see the choreography of the fight itself due to the camera movement. There’s also a car chase with Paz where the jittery camera shots ruin any semblance of the work done by the filmmakers and crew.
While the overlapping timelines may be a bit confusing, the events taking place keep your eyes glued to the screen. Bourne is such a fantastic, likable, yet brutal, character that he’s hard not to love. There really isn’t an inciting incident in The Bourne Ultimatum since it basically happened in Supremacy and just carried over. With all that being said, the film is still great. However, the camerawork makes you wonder what could’ve been had there been some more polished filming throughout.
Following The Bourne Ultimatum, it took five years for another installment of the series to hit theaters. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon left the franchise and took the shaky camera with them while Tony Gilroy returned to the series to direct and co-write. Jeremy Renner stars not as Jason Bourne but as Aaron Cross. Cross is an agent from a similar black ops program called Operation Outcome. Due to the previous issues with Bourne, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is tasked with managing the collateral damage. Rachel Weisz also stars as Dr. Marta Shearing who provides the pills, known as “chems,” used by agents in the program. She is also being hunted down by Byer and company.
While The Bourne Legacy isn’t horrible, its most interesting parts all have to do with the ongoing Bourne damage control. Renner is decent in the lead but he doesn’t have the same motivation and sense of agency that Damon had. The added plotline regarding Cross’s need for more chems is unlike anything else in the franchise. In a lot of instances, this could really just be its own standalone movie, albeit an average one. There are still, in fact, plans for a spinoff sequel directed by Justin Lin to be in the works.
Now, this year, Jason Bourne returns after a nine year absence from the franchise in Jason Bourne. While the title is certainly uninspired, it’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to distance themselves from the previous film and let everyone know that Bourne is back. Both Greengrass and Damon are returning with the former and Christopher Rouse sharing writing credits on the script. While The Bourne Ultimatum provided a fitting end to the story, we all know that there’s always someone out there looking to hunt Jason Bourne.
While it remains to be seen how this new film will fare, it’s oddly refreshing to be receiving a proper entry to the series after all this time. Will it be able to reinvigorate the franchise and live up to the original trilogy? Possibly. It definitely has a better chance than a handful of spinoffs without the character that the films and novels are named after. Overall, the Bourne series has been a gold standard franchise that will hopefully be receiving another gold standard entry. For all of us licking our chops and pining for Jason Bourne’s release, the wait is nearly over.