When The Bourne Identity came out in 2002, it recreated the spy thriller for the new millennium. Director Doug Limon brought an independent film touch to the genre, with hand-held cameras and jerky motion – Limon didn’t let the cameraman see the rehearsals so he wasn’t sure who was talking next and often had to catch up. Limon also had a more jaundiced view of spies, partially from his father’s experience as the chief counsel for the Iran-Contra hearings in the 1980s. He took the first third of the source book and threw out the rest, so screenwriter Tony Gilroy rewrote the story based on an outline created by Limon. There were problems with the production because the executives at Universal didn’t like the look of the film, and re-writes and re-shoots put the film $8 million over budget and a year late for release. Because of this, when the sequel was in pre-production Limon was shut out from directing again.
Once released, The Bourne Identity was a solid it with a worldwide gross of $214 million, and it made Matt Damon an action star. For the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, producer Frank Marshall brought in Paul Greengrass, whose visual style and independent roots lined up well with Limon’s, but who could handle the action with ease and bring the film in on budget and on time. 2004’s Supremacy was an even bigger hit than Identity (and my personal favorite of the series), and 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum had the biggest box office of them all. Greengrass and Damon, working with Tony Gilroy and Greengrass’s regular collaborator Christopher Rouse, managed to avoid the third-movie-of-a-trilogy curse (see X-Men: The Last Stand for the original cast and X-Men: Apocalypse for the reboot class). They also upped the action by introducing parkour to film for physical chase sequences. The next Bond film, Casino Royale, showed the series’ impact in its imitation of Bourne’s action sequences.
With Ultimatum the producers finished the original three books written by author Robert Ludlum, though beyond the titles and main character the last two films bear almost no resemblance to the novels. (The use of an adhesive thumbprint in Supremacy is in the book.) They crafted a satisfying finish to the series, and Greengrass and Damon moved on. But just like the nine subsequent novels the Ludlum estate published, written by Eric Van Lustbader who’s a decent thriller writer in his own right, the studio wanted to continue to capitalize on the story. They had Gilroy both write and direct The Bourne Legacy. While it took place at the same time as Ultimatum and shared some of the same characters, Gilroy didn’t attempt to imitate the Bourne series film style. It wasn’t as successful as the Damon movies, though Universal is planning a sequel with star Jeremy Renner.
Now nine years after Supremacy, both Greengrass and Damon are back for the eponymus Jason Bourne. For the first time Gilroy didn’t do the script, ceding those duties to Greengrass (who previously scripted his movies Bloody Sunday and United 93) and Rouse. While a novel series can extend through dozens of books, it’s much harder to accomplish that with films since you only have two-plus hours to tell the story rather than 90,000 plus words.
The plot of Bourne expands on the original three movies. Julia Stiles returns as Nicky Parsons, who’s been off the grid since the end of Ultimatum. She hacks the CIA and discovers a new black ops program that does for surveillance what the previous programs Treadstone and Blackbriar did for active espionage. While in the files she also discovers more information about Bourne’s background and how he was recruited. She heads to Greece to connect with Bourne, unaware that the head of the CIA (Tommy Lee Jones) has had his assistant Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) plant a tracking virus in Nicky’s computer. The CIA sends an asset left from the Treadstone project (Vincent Cassel) to deal with Nicky and Bourne.
In some respects the plot feels like a trash bag ad where they stuff more into a bag that’s already full. The bag holds in this case, but just barely, and if they intend to do a fifth Damon/Bourne film they’ll need to use a fresh bag. That said, the film does have its pleasures. As with the previous movies, the action flows from Greece to Berlin to London before its final reckoning in Las Vegas, though it’s never a travelogue like the Bond films. Greengrass finds common streets where he frames his action, and even manages to turn down the gaudy bright lights of Vegas to create a world of shadows and menace. Once more the physical action is intense and exciting, especially the extended sequence in Greece where Bourne and Nicky try to escape the CIA with a motorcycle run through an austerity riot.
For Damon the character is like a favorite suit, perhaps a bit worn and shiny but still a good fit. I enjoyed the interplay of Jones as the classic CIA officer and Vikander as the new generation. I missed the emotional resonance that I believe Gilroy brought to the other Bourne films, since you see it in his other films like Michael Clayton and State of Play, but Gilroy was tied up with the new Star Wars prequel Rogue One as well as Damon’s next film, The Great Wall.
Still, in spite of its weaknesses there are enough strengths with Bourne to make it worth seeing. It could have been a second chance at the third-movie-of-a-trilogy curse, but once again Greengrass and Damon have avoided that trap.