Back in 2002, we received the first entry in what would become a popular and engaging franchise of action-packed spy thrillers – The Bourne Identity, which has gone on to spawn four sequels, the most recent being this summer's Jason Bourne. So let’s take a look back at these films and see what makes them so great, but be warned, this article will contain heavy spoilers for the first three films in the series.
2002 brought us a couple of surprising action successes featuring unexpected talent. There was the virtually un-advertised Equilibrium, utilizing the man mostly known as an American Psycho, Christian Bale, that had fun, over-the-top martial arts action and shootouts in a dystopian future, and showed the world that Bale could pull off an action role, something he later did in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Then there was The Bourne Identity, a movie starring that guy from Good Will Hunting, Rounders, and Dogma – Matt Damon.
I won’t lie. The idea of Matt Damon as an action star seemed like a mistake. The trailers showed him as being a tough, aggressive fighter, something previously reserved for body builders and martial artists. A few years prior, The Matrix popularized the use of “normal” actors in action-heavy roles, showing us that it was possible to make great action with just about anyone through heavy training, flashy camera work and lots of wires. However, The Bourne Identity seemed to be absent of that, giving us a more reality-based film, and so I didn’t know what to expect.
My first mistake was classifying this as an action film, though to be fair, the marketing was in part to blame for that. It may technically be an action film, but it is far from action-heavy. Unlike Equilibrium, this opted to go for more subdued and quick set pieces. The fights were fast and intense and the shootouts were calculating and efficient. This was not escapism action nor was it action-heavy, but rather survivalist action. He does what he has to in order to survive- no more, no less. And it is not at all flashy and extravagant. There are no long, drawn-out battles of fists and guns, which gives this film a much more grounded and realistic feel.
The story of The Bourne Identity opened with a wounded and unconscious floating-at-sea Matt Damon being saved by fishermen. They patch him up but he has no memories about his past or identity. Given the bullets in his back, the location in which he was found and the bank information imbedded within a secret capsule in his hip, he is left with endless questions and concerns over who he really is.
The bank information leads him to a safety deposit box with his passport and the name “Jason Bourne” on it. However, there is a false bottom on the box revealing a plethora of other passports with his picture and different names, a large amount of money and a gun. Even more concerned over what kind of person he is, Bourne tries to put the rest of the pieces together, utilizing the help of the nomadic Marie (Franka Potente). Along the way, the pair must survive by outwitting the CIA black ops group Treadstone (which he used to be a part of) and the assassins sent to finish him off.
This film was engaging, fun and tense. It wasn’t overly twisty or complicated, making it one of the better spy thrillers when it came out. 2002 also brought with it Pierce Brosnan’s final turn as James Bond in Die Another Day, which fell into the franchise’s trend at this time of being increasingly campy, over the top, flashy and preferring style over substance. By comparison, it made Bourne seem like the anti-Bond. He didn’t make death-related puns nor did he flirt and then bed every single woman he encountered. The Bourne Identity was a fun spy movie that felt like it belonged in the real world and it was definitely loved for it.
Released in 2004, The Bourne Supremacy carried on the story of our favorite forgetful spy. Bourne is now living under a new identity with Marie, completely off the CIA's radar. That is until Russian Secret Service Agent Kirill (Karl Urban) frames him for the murder of CIA operatives and then kills Marie. This sends Bourne after the CIA, thinking they were behind the attempt on his life that killed Marie, and the CIA go after him thinking that he was behind the murder of their agents.
Once again Bourne must get to the bottom of who is after him in his quest for vengeance while further expanding the still-forgotten knowledge of his past. Leading the hunt for Bourne is the no-nonsense Pam Landy (Joan Allen), along with Julia Stiles’ Nicky, who interacted briefly with Bourne in the first film. Landy proves to be a dynamic character who is more of a protagonist than antagonist, as she is after the truth more so than just killing Bourne, unlike the prior film’s baddie who just wanted to snuff out our hero.
The Bourne Supremacy continued the realism set in the first film, only on a slightly larger scale. There’s a little more action and a chase sequence that's more destructive. However, one of my least favorite aspects of this film is the directing and editing of the action sequences. The first film certainly fell victim to the shaky cam quick-cut style, but the action was still fairly coherent. In Supremacy, a larger chunk of the action is just plain hard to follow, lessening the intensity and replacing it with confusion.
From a story perspective, I appreciate the added depth of Bourne in Supremacy. We learn more of his past and see his post-amnesia personality coming to grips with the man he used to be. However, I wish we had more of Karl Urban’s Kirill. He seemed like a formidable opponent for Bourne, but after framing Bourne and then killing Marie, he didn’t really do a whole lot more until the end chase scene. Even with those small complaints, this film still managed to be a sequel that equaled the quality of the first, and if the camera was a little more stable, this very well could have surpassed Identity.
Supremacy was originally planned as an endcap to the Bourne series, where the titular character finally comes to grips with who he used to be. His catharsis is reached after he remembers his first hit as an operative where he killed a couple and made it look like a murder-suicide. He then tracks down the couple’s daughter and tells her what really happened, unburdening her from the thought that her mother would do something like that. Months later, we see Bourne and Landy having one final chat via phone call and it seems like that’s it for our hero. His journey is complete…except it’s not.
Three years later we received the next entry in the Bourne saga with The Bourne Ultimatum. The film picks up exactly where we left off…sort of. This movie does something interesting by taking us back to right after Bourne had talked to the daughter of his first victims, showing us what happened between then and his phone call with Landy at the end of Supremacy, then the events that immediately followed the call, thus making Ultimatum a simultaneous prequel and sequel to Supremacy’s final scene.
Ultimatum finds Bourne coming out of hiding when a journalist is targeted for looking into Treadstone and Blackbriar, the newest program for creating assassins. The CIA assumes Bourne is the source, putting him on their radar once again. With a new group of CIA assassins sent after him, and his memories slowly returning, Jason Bourne works to survive and expose Treadstone and Blackbriar. Leading the charge to take down Bourne is Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who believes the ends justify the means and will stop at nothing to silence the rogue amnesiac. All the while, Pam Landy still seeks the truth as she and Noah butt heads over the hunt for Bourne, and Nicky becomes a full-fledged ally for Bourne as she helps him track down the source of the leak that the CIA incorrectly assumed was Bourne.
Much like the prior film, Ultimatum serves to improve upon what came before it. This feels a little bigger and better than Supremacy in most aspects. Unfortunately, the severe shaky cam and quick-cutting is still present, however it actually feels a little more coherent this time with the chases and fights being the best of the series thus far, especially the clash between Desh (Joey Ansah) and Bourne. And even though the action feels bigger and more intense, it never suffers from being too over-the-top as it solidly retains the more grounded, gritty and realistic approach.
Ultimatum is easily the strongest of the trilogy with the story coming full circle to shed some light on Bourne’s identity and beginnings. In the end, the CIA bigwigs behind Treadstone and Blackbriar are exposed and arrested, firmly closing out the story thread from the first movie. Bourne is in the wind after getting shot and falling off a building into the water, Nicky is in hiding after being burned by the CIA, Landy is left to fight the good fight and all of the true antagonists are punished. The acting is top notch and the characters well crafted. Even the main CIA assassin Paz (Edgar Ramirez) is given a bit more characterization than the assets of the prior films as he becomes the first trained assassin (aside from Bourne) who begins to question all of the killing by the end.
It is undeniable that the original three Bourne films are one of the best trilogies around. Maybe not as iconic or epic as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but these anti-Bond spy thrillers are relatively realistic, smart, fun, engaging and without a true weak link entry. Even though they were released during the summer and marketed heavily on the action, they actually feel like the antithesis of the big Hollywood summer blockbuster, relying more on story and character than flashy effects and extravagant set pieces. It was a great trilogy and it finally seemed like it was over, ending where it should with the bad guys out of power and Bourne back in hiding. And then much to my surprise another sequel was released.
Five years after the release of Ultimatum a new Bourne movie without Bourne himself was released. In 2012, Jeremy Renner picked up the lead role as another CIA asset named Aaron Cross for The Bourne Legacy. I did enjoy this film enough and it does have “Bourne” in the title but I have a hard time considering it a true Bourne film, as did many fans who consider this the low point in the series. Some of the characters from the Bourne trilogy were brought in to help make it feel like a part of the same universe but ultimately it just didn’t feel like a Bourne film without Matt Damon.
It felt like it was all over once again. Sure, they could still technically make more, but it seemed even more unlikely that Damon would return once Jeremy Renner took over as lead. And so I figured we’d maybe get another “Bourne” movie starring Renner, but I certainly thought that the actual Jason Bourne character was retired from the series. And then in 2016, 14 years after the first film was released and 9 years after we last saw Matt Damon as Bourne, he made his return to the franchise with Jason Bourne.
This new film finds our favorite former CIA hitman with all of his memories returned and living a drab, empty life full of underground fights and not much else. Meanwhile, his former associate Nicky hacks into the CIA and steals files on their various black ops programs, including Treadstone, and the most recent program titled Ironhand. While going through the files she sees the name of Jason Bourne’s father all over Treadstone, leading her to track down Bourne. The CIA, aware of the hack, follow Nicky to Bourne, putting them both on the CIA’s radar once again. Now with more questions about his past and being hunted by the CIA, Bourne has no choice but to take on the agency again to seek answers of his father’s involvement and to put a stop to Ironhand.
Aside from Nicky and Bourne, there are no returning characters, giving us a fresh batch of CIA agents and a new director, plus a single new asset aka hitman. Whereas Tommy Lee Jones’ CIA Director Dewey is pretty much the same role as the older white guys from the other films, whether it be Brian Cox from Identity and Supremacy or David Strathairn from Ultimatum, it’s the other characters that actually feel different this time around to help keep this series somewhat fresh.
Alicia Vikander’s Heather Lee is the head of the CIA anti-hacking division who initially discovers Nicky’s hack and ends up leading the hunt for Bourne. For a second, I thought she would just be another Pam Landy, as in a character that starts out hunting Bourne but then aids him when she feels there’s more going on. Luckily there is much more to her than that, and the same goes for the unnamed asset (Vincent Cassel) sent after Bourne this time. Since he wasn’t even given a name, I thought perhaps he would be the least characterized assassin thus far, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only does he actually have lines, but he is a solid threat throughout and even has a deeper connection to Bourne that makes the hunt personal.
Jason Bourne also brought us decidedly better action. Though there was still a hell of a lot of shaky cam and quick-cutting that made the action hard to follow at times, there was a clear improvement in many instances, especially the final chase scene that tore up the streets of Las Vegas. Even though I think that final chase went on a tad too long, it was still great fun and entertaining. If only the rest of the film felt like an improvement.
Even with the new characters, this sometimes felt a little too familiar. Oh, Bourne is trying to uncover the truth behind some old memory of his that he doesn’t fully understand? Another director of the CIA is an evil douchebag that just wants to kill Bourne? We’ve been there before, and the prior films did it better. Jason Bourne just felt too scattered and unfocused at times. We have Bourne trying to find out the truth about his father, Director Dewey trying to force tech mogul Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) into helping with the Ironhand program and Aaron Kalloor in turn trying to find his way out of Dewey’s grip, and then there are Heather Lee and the asset who each have their own spoiler-y goals and story threads as they try to find Bourne.
Ultimately it mostly ties together by the end, but it certainly felt like they were trying to cram a lot of different plot elements into one movie, especially considering Bourne’s father didn’t tie into Ironhand at all. It almost feels like Bourne finding more answers about his father and the Ironhand program could have been separate movies. It is also a bit difficult to believe that someone like Dewey is in a position of power in the CIA after the events of the original films. It makes it seem like everything Bourne (and Landy) did meant absolutely nothing and we’re back at square one with corrupt “shoot first ask questions later” old white men running the CIA.
I do enjoy this series still and I’m open to the idea of more sequels. However, that being said, they absolutely need to rethink the plot structure. Now that Bourne has fully regained his memories, and gone toe-to-toe with the CIA in a similar fashion and for similar reasons four times in a row, perhaps it’s time he had a new foe- another government, mercenaries, terrorists. Just make it something other than the CIA. This film even teased the idea of Bourne rejoining the CIA, which would definitely open up options for a sequel if they ever want to make one. Even though they basically squashed that tease by the end of the film, it could technically still happen and could possibly be just the change the series needs to stay fresh.
Whatever comes next, the first three Bourne films are at least great examples of a spy thriller done right. They are engaging, fun, smart and well crafted. Jason Bourne may have fallen short of the greatness they had established but the bar was set pretty high. In no way is Jason Bourne a bad movie, it just isn’t as good as the prior films. It is still fun and different enough to avoid being boring, however the main plot thread of Bourne taking on the CIA while uncovering secrets from his past is far too familiar at this point. Hopefully if they continue the series, the filmmakers will change the formula enough and give Bourne a different antagonist to prevent it from becoming stale.
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.