Tom Jolliffe looks back at the original Jason Bourne trilogy, its impact on action cinema, and whether it still holds up…
At a time when the Bond franchise was growing tired, and a slew of over the top action films attempted to have either edge or attitude (xXx) or riff on The Matrix, another franchise came along and shook the genre. Based on the Robert Ludlum novels, the Bourne trilogy told the tale of trained government assassin Jason Bourne. Beginning with The Bourne Identity, which cast Matt Damon as an action hero, we meet Bourne being fished out of the sea with bullets in his back and no memory. From then on it’s a three film quest to find out exactly who he is, whilst trying to evade the sniper scope of a litany of rival hitmen sent by agency officials to cover their mistakes and corrupt government officials with dark secrets to hide.
Damon wasn’t known as a physical performer in any way at that time. Many weren’t convinced he could pull off Bourne, or become a central figure in an action (potential) franchise. It was a new century though, and the Hollywood action specialists like Arnold Schwarzenner and Sylvester Stallone were being nixed in favour of ‘actors’ and furthermore, by guys a decade or two younger sometimes. So Damon is Bourne, and the first film sees him slowly discovering the truth of his identity in a film that kicks into gear quickly and doesn’t let up. Doug Liman helmed the first film and laid the tracks. A gritty style that at best would be described as visceral, and at worst, shaky cam, would become the franchise raison d’etre. Bourne, an expert in just about everything, including hand to hand combat needed to convincingly dispose of bad guys. This would become a big point of contention across the franchise from action purists used to the wide shots and more cultivated cutting of a Van Damme, Chan or Seagal fight sequence. It was also in the wake of The Matrix with intricate choreography and fights which were shown with distinct clarity (where you can see a Keanu Reeves performing most of it himself).
By the second film, The Bourne Spremacy, with the introduction of Paul Greengrass there was a significant stylistic shift to an almost documentary-like, fly on the wall style. It felt voyeuristic even if occasionally uncomfortable to watch with a camera that wouldn’t sit still (or prone to zoom shifts) and occasionally cutting that bordered on frantic. Still, Greengrass would be one of the few auteurs to be given something of a pass given the added intensity and grit permeating his two entries in the original trilogy. Something about the style, whether you like it or not, felt in place with Greengrass. We become a voyeur into an espionage story full of government conspiracy, cover ups and illegal activities. In The Bourne Ultimatum there seemed a concerted effort to reign in the style to some extent, with dialogue scenes feeling less dizzying.
Interestingly, between the second and third instalments of Bourne, there was a re-invention of James Bond. It would be fair to say the success of the first two in the Bourne franchise, had a profound effect on the direction Bond would take. If Pierce Brosnan’s last couple of entries made Roger Moore’s look grounded, it became apparent audiences took to more of a thinking man’s action film. This combined with the success of Batman Begins (which took the comic book gloss off its infamous property and made it feel like a hard nosed crime thriller) would prove significant to Bond going forward. Casino Royale wouldn’t fall into the same relentless cutting pace of a Bourne, nor the shaking camera, retaining a clearer visual style, but there was certainly a style shakeup and tonal shake up that owed much to Liman/Greengrass (and Bond became grounded and gritty).
Quantum of Solace, lacking an action director as honed and clear of his strengths as Martin Campbell, would opt to ape the Bourne style, and has the weakest action of the Daniel Craig era. Like so many films emulating the Bourne style, it didn’t perhaps fit the genre, or felt like a lazy copy of the style. Greengrass is a director who knows exactly how everything will come together and probably has a direct influence on the pace of cutting too. There’s a certain cohesion between the shots and the cuts that work exceptionally well. The Bourne Ultimatum in particular is extremely well edited, pumping the film out at a hammering pace, but right on that point before you go overboard. The set pieces in particular, were great. The scene at Waterloo station was brilliantly edited.
The overriding seriousness of Bourne also played well into a changing tonal shift for the space of a decade, prior to Iron Man kicking off the MCU formula, which almost every action blockbuster now seems to follow. So does the Bourne style still work? In terms of the shaky cam thing and the very brisk average shot length, it would seem to be out of fashion. The subsequent sequels The Bourne Legacy (with Jeremy Renner playing a fellow assassin) and Jason Bourne didn’t have nearly the same critical or fan response. Financially the films proved popular still, but certainly by the time Jason Bourne came out in 2016 (with Greengrass returning) it was evident that the style and possibly even very serious, grounded tone had been left behind. We were now in a world of John Wick films too, where there’s a grounding with the fight sequences that has a certain authentic feel, but does so with wide angles and longer takes occasionally. The Bourne fight sequence is less about what you can see, and more about creating a frantic visceral energy that portrays the ruthless speed and power these guys can operate at. It’s not to say there weren’t good fight sequences in Bourne. Certainly Damon’s face off with Martin Csokas in The Bourne Supremacy or Joey Ansah in Ultimatum were brutally effective. Likewise the car chases had that same kind of intensity, that thrust you into a disorientating situation. Again, so many car chases would follow the Bourne way in the wake of the original trilogy.
Looking back on the films is interesting. The opening trilogy, driven by its intrigue and an exceptional lead in Damon, still hold up extremely well and offer the same thrills they always did. They’re intelligent, mirroring the tactical acuman Bourne must operate with to outwit his pursuers. The films were boosted by superb casts too, and always an interesting bunch of antagonists (Clive Owen in Identity, Karl Urban in Supremacy). The signature car chases are pulse pounding and gut wrenching. Conversely, the spinoff and reboot which followed never worked nearly as well because too much was repeated. In Jason Bourne in particular, having closed off an arc in Ultimatum and brought Bourne’s journey of self discovery to a fitting close, it felt like we were being thrust back into the same story again, rather than a natural progression. Everything was a tired repeat of what we’d seen more interestingly in the original trilogy. Thus Bourne’s story wasn’t as interesting. Damon wasn’t nearly as inspired and neither was Greengrass, an overriding sense perhaps that both men were reluctantly swayed by cash to dive back into a well that had evidently run dry. Suddenly the shaky cam didn’t feel as integral, perhaps even derivative and certainly outdated by that point.
A lot of lower budget action films and no shortage of DTV actioners certainly still mimic the Bourne style (for one it allows a certain speed and grab-and-go energy that lends itself to 2-3 week shooting schedules). In the big screen arena (such as it is right now), there’s most definitely a sense that the Wick model is the current modus operandi of choice. In action, particularly when the likes of Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise are performing a lot of the sequences, it becomes integral to show it clearly, whilst the CGI driven comic book films also tend to show everything off in wide angles.
What are your thoughts on the Bourne films? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.