Reflections On The Jason Bourne Series: How A Hero Can Fall

I’ve always championed the Jason Bourne series. So it’s strange for me to admit that, for many years, The Bourne Identity meant nothing to me. In fact, I prided myself on my dismissive attitude toward it.

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Released in 2002, and directed by Doug Liman, it was surprising Liman moved towards the thriller after Go. Now, almost 15 years later, the fifth instalment Jason Bourne is at cinemas and inevitably I travelled back through the series to reflect on what they are, what they became and, now, what they’ve become.

bourne1My justification to write-off The Bourne Identity is partly due to my age at the time. My love of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State meant that the similar CIA-tracking of the “I-don’t-know-what-they-want” subject was too similar. The outstanding foot-chase of Jason Lee, with the frenetic cutting and all-star supporting actors in the opening of Enemy of the State remains a thrilling start to a movie. With that in my mind, Jason Bourne’s slow awakening, and staggered realisation of his skill set, simply took too long for my young teenage mind. I viewed the film on two separate occasions, even writing a harsh (badly-written) blog post, and still, smugly, thought nothing of it.

bourne2It was with that in mind, that I experienced The Bourne Supremacy, years later after the initial trilogy had been and gone from cinemas. This, crucially, was the game-changer. Suddenly the action, momentum and Bourne’s position in the world had a deep, dramatic sense of urgency. The two films also dove-tailed nicely as Identity has Jason being hunted and on the defence, while Supremacy had him hunting those out to hurt him, using his skills to attack. It had the same balance that The Terminator and T2: Judgement Day had – until the third instalment came along.

bourne3The Bourne Ultimatum always has that tricky beginning. The awkward clarification of a mid-film scene of the previous film. Mentally trying to figure out whether we need to remember anything key was always an iffy problem; something that consequent viewings aren’t impeded by. The thing is, Ultimatum seems to expand on Supremacy’s story with little purpose. He was desperate to stop those trying to hunt; he achieved this after confronting Brian Cox. Ultimatum simply throws David Strathairn into the mix. He is immediately set up as a villainous figure (something, sensibly, we were never quite sure of with Cox in Identity) while Pam Landy (Joan Allen), after the events of Supremacy is clearly not the uninformed boss she once was. Ultimatum hands us a simpler story with beats that rather than complement the previous films, instead copies them directly. But, on the plus side, considering the entire series is about who, and why, Jason Bourne is such a dangerous assassin, Ultimatum does fill in a few gaps that conclude our understanding of this vital moment in his life

The action, of course, is immensely satisfying. Paul Greengrass and Damon, working together, is the winning formula. Instead of the thriller build-up of Identity, (something that, on reflection, is the solid character-building foundations), Supremacy and Ultimatum move at a non-stop pace, with rarely a chance to breath. This became the definition of a “Bourne” film. Watching The Bourne Legacy trailer, I was filled with hope. It had the energy of the movies and the plot made sense: of course Blackbriar and Treadstone were only the tip of the iceberg.

bourne4This is why Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy fails so spectacularly. I appreciate the “change of tone”, but it misses what we had all become accustomed to in the series. Highlights, for example, were in the moment Jason took down two police officers in Zurich in Identity; the vicious fights with knives, magazines and pens through the series. Hand-to-hand combat was a part of what we liked about a “Bourne” film. Despite wolf-fighting, world-wide murder of agents and the take down of a drone, the lack of fighting is clearly a loss – with the first Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) take down of others emerging after 40-minutes of screen time. In the first hour and a half, this is the only fight he has. Frustratingly, Cross is a good guy and a fine new hero to continue the series. It’d be a fine idea to bring Cross and Bourne together at some point. But The Bourne Legacy muddies the plot with talk of “chems”, “viralling out” and detailed rules for what needs to happen for Aaron Cross to survive. The drug plotline is void because, even if he got them, the US government are still after him. The one, simple question to Jason Bourne was “why am I being hunted?” and “how can I stop them from hunting me”. Everything fed into that. Aaron Cross has the same issue but has the convoluted druggie storyline pulling the tension out of every scene.

Then the references to moments in The Bourne Ultimatum. There was a desperation when linking Legacy to the series. A cameo of Pam Landy and David Straithern in the final moments almost spoils the end of Jason Bourne’s trilogy, turning Landy into scapegoat after two films where she became the champion in the US government for Bourne. Unless this finale was supposed to serve as an effective way to pull the two agents together in the next film. Suddenly, while Bourne was free, the possibility that he could be pulled back to set the record straight on the black ops was an intriguing notion.

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Indeed, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass returned. Suddenly, in last month’s Jason Bourne, only four years after Legacy, we would see what pulls Jason back into the fray. Rather than build on the series, and scrap what wasn’t liked, Greengrass insolently snubbed Legacy entirely. You can imagine the arrogance, as he decides to ignore the film entirely. It’s just Jason Bourne, on the run again. He may have thought “that’s what people want anyway”. Though the box-office has spoken, so have reviews.

The purpose behind Bourne’s return is weak. The extension to reveal Jason’s father is forced. The death of Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles) is, not only a repeat of the opening to Supremacy, but also wasting one of the few actors who could’ve become a warm welcoming presence back to the dirty world of undercover operative’s time and time again. Jason Bourne has irreversibly changed the series while singlehandedly downgrading a tense, intelligent, action-thriller to merely generic action. Even the use of Alicia Vikander was a missed opportunity. Rather than an alternate rogue agent (Are all CIA Treadstone/Blackbriar/LARX killer’s men? Even in 2016?), she is a 27-year-old Pam Landy, inexplicably career-jumping to Tommy Lee Jones’ old position.

There are no clever tricks in this one. There are no real-world parallels, to write passionate cinema-inspired think-pieces on. It is just a guy, being chased, by a craggy CIA boss. I joked on Twitter what the next films could be –

What an absolute shame. I imagine Tony Gilroy, after the mockery he received for The Bourne Legacy (and specifically the reviewers who, incorrectly, pleaded for Damon and Greengrass to return to the series), hopefully has a bit of a wry grin. It is clear that “The Bourne Trilogy” will be what fans remember fondly. That both Legacy and (the awfully titled) Jason Bourne will sit awkwardly afterwards, as an example as to what happens when you don’t leave things alone. Imagine a world where Julia Stiles works again with Jason Bourne, directing him to the source? Or where Riz Ahmed is an action hero himself rather than a Zuckerberg sound-a-like? They’ve cut off possibilities that may be impossible to get back. Once again, as I felt originally with The Bourne Identity, I’ll have to meet discussions of the series with a groan. Hopefully, one day, my mind will be changed.

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