Tony Black on Matt Damon’s return as Jason Bourne in the post-Snowden world…
Nobody thought Jason Bourne was gone forever. Not even when Tony Gilroy’s misjudged The Bourne Legacy attempted to relaunch the franchise, sans Bourne himself, did people truly believe we’d seen the last of probably the greatest cinematic super spy of the modern age. The trailer for Jason Bourne landed this week, the brand new fifth film in the franchise which sees Matt Damon return in the titular role (stripped back to just the name, a la Jack Ryan or Jack Reacher), and most excitingly of all paired with director Paul Greengrass who took the already impressive work of Doug Liman on The Bourne Identity and built on it wonderfully with The Bourne Supremacy (still the best one) and The Bourne Ultimatum. After the open-ended conclusion to that film, ending the trilogy of Bourne coming to discover who he was amidst taking down a corrupt international conspiracy within US intelligence, Greengrass & Damon were both done. End game. Story told. They hung about and made the unrelated, impressive Green Zone together soon after but their Bourne days were over, both agreeing they wouldn’t come back unless the other did and they had a good enough reason. Besides presumably a great deal of money, it seems they found one. It seems they found a way to make Bourne relevant once more, give him purpose, but how? In the post-Edward Snowden world of 2016, why do we need Jason Bourne?
Cast your mind back to the year The Bourne Identity came out. 2002. In the grand scheme of geo-politics, that feels like a lifetime ago; the tragedy of 9/11 was still raw (some would argue that wound never healed), Saddam Hussain was still in power, George Bush was serving his first term, and the James Bond films were still peddling cheesy tosh like Die Another Day. That’s a brief but important point: Pierce Brosnan’s last run as 007 came out a few months after Bourne dropped and he looked positively creaky in a poor shadow of what Bond started as. The result was Daniel Craig, the re-invention of the entire Bond franchise, and an aesthetic entirely crafted after the kinetic, tough and enigmatic world Liman gave us with Identity. Bourne immediately made an impact on the cinematic road map, in terms of action and espionage, spawning a range of imitators. It had a simple concept: an amnesiac with a particular set of skills, left for dead, realises he’s a highly-trained assassin for a covert operation inside US intelligence, who via Chris Cooper’s crafty agent Conklin soon send a variety of assassins to take him out before he can learn the truth. Simple. Beautiful. The resultant picture was fast and furious (in a good way), yet imbued with character and earnest honesty by Damon who completely reinvented himself as an action star. The plot nonetheless was hugely different from the original book written by the late Robert Ludlum in the 1970’s; there Bourne’s main antagonist was infamous assassin Carlos the Jackal, totally omitted from the movie which only very loosely took Ludlum’s story and brought it into the present day.
When Greengrass took over the reins, after Liman and Damon considered the story told, The Bourne Supremacy was released in 2004 as the Coalition was not only deep into its guerrila war in Afghanistan, hunting down the Taliban al-Qaeda rebels they blamed for the World Trade Center bombing, but plans were hatching for Bush’s infamous ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign on Saddam’s Iraqi forces as questions raged about WMD’s and his ability to attack Western soil. Supremacy came out when shock had turned not to awe but growing anger, and this set Bourne on an even more violent and brutal course. Edged and spiked, with a cold revenge element after a stark opening, Supremacy charts the beginning of Bourne’s journey back into the shadowy world of Treadstone, the covert US project to create elite assassins who can do the governments black ops dirty work. Where Identity was much more of a straight-up thriller about identity indeed rather than conspiracy, Greengrass made much more of a political film in many respects with this and his next sequel, Ultimatum; not just a search for Bourne’s personal truth but equally to expose a government working against his best interests, and perhaps our own. It almost harkened back to the days of the post-Watergate political thrillers of the 70’s such as The Parallax View, a brave move from Greengrass in an age where the people, for a spell, wanted to unite behind a common goal against ‘The Enemy’; those devilish Arab terrorists who attacked our way of life. Greengrass, as he proved even more deeply with Green Zone, was all too aware of the shades of grey, that it’s never been that simple, but did people respond to his Bourne movies for the political messages? Maybe. Perhaps what they enjoyed more was Bourne’s search for personal truth, alongside the kinetic action sequences. The films were a success but it seemed Bourne’s journey had ended with enlightenment.
Four years later came The Bourne Legacy, born more out of Hollywood politics perhaps than polemic. Tony Gilroy, an excellent writer on the previous two pictures, was given the keys to the franchise that Universal didn’t want to see die with Bourne’s quest. Knowing Greengrass & Damon felt the journey was over, Gilroy decided to weave his sequel into the tapestry as ultimately cascading across the timeline of the previous movies, a side step alongside and following Bourne’s journey in which we got an all new brand of hero in Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross for the action theatrics. Putting aside the fact Renner has lacked the chops thus far to really break out of the mega franchises that carried him to stardom, Cross felt like a poor-man’s Bourne saddled with the loose ends of the Bourne story. Gilroy was far more interested in the internal mechanics of Treadstone and the greater projects such as Blackbriar, and the science of it, than the political fallout and context, and it made for a stodgy film which bizarrely seems to entirely lack a final act. Long past the deposing of Saddam and in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden, Legacy sowed the seeds of a new kind of world – drone strikes and scientific manipulation, control, in a way which should have been more terrifying, yet it singularly lacked Jason Bourne as a mechanism to explore those fears. Imagine a Bond film where we follow Bill Tanner and you’re on the right lines – it felt unfocused, messy and largely pointless. We didn’t want the legacy of Bourne, we wanted the man himself. For years, as efforts to launch a sequel to Legacy and continue Cross’ open ended story stalled thanks to lukewarm reception, Greengrass & Damon resisted the cry of the studio to give the people what they wanted. Then Edward Snowden happened and everything changed.
Snowden was a lightbulb moment for the Bourne franchise. The heart monitor beeping back into life. The leaking of documents into US surveillance practices turned Snowden into a traitor and hero to equal amounts of people across the globe, a debate still raging. It’s been almost a decade since we last saw Bourne in action. Now we have smartphones. Apple are resisting the FBI hacking into their system to outwit terrorists. We’ve had Charlie Hebdo, the Paris attacks, Brussels. The genuine threat of President Donald Trump on the back of a wave of Islamophobic mass hysterical fear. The collapse of the Greek economy. The rise of ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis. The EU in turmoil with Britain about to vote whether to leave it altogether. Everywhere you look, the world seems to be falling apart. Drone strikes. Repressive surveillance laws. Fear. War. The media. It’s all building into a relentless pressure cooker that keeps growing and growing and Jason Bourne fits at the very heart of it all. A man, created by the hand that bit him, a realised political weapon of war, poised to expose once more the nefarious surveillance and intelligence practices of a democracy supposed to work for the people. Greengrass and Damon, if they get the mixture right for a third time, won’t just make a thrilling action picture, they could make a relevant cultural mirror which illuminates that fear, that post-Snowden world, that is so different to the one Bourne last inhabited.
This summer, Jason Bourne hits. And we may need him more than ever.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.