The Bourne Conundrum: The Problem with the Bourne Franchise and How Can it be Saved

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SPOILER WARNING for Jason Bourne

The fifth movie in the Bourne series has been out for two weeks, making $60 Million on its opening weekend in North America and has already made $246.2 Million internationally. However the critical reaction for Jason Bourne has been mixed, having a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, 1% more than The Bourne Legacy, and its IMDB score tumbled quickly. Despite the Bourne series being a cash-cow for Universal, there is clearly something wrong at the heart of the series and the studio needs to plan their next move carefully if they want to ensure the franchise’s survival.

First and foremost the original trilogy was a perfect set of movies, ‘Identity‘ had the mystery of Bourne having to find out who he is and why he had all those spying abilities – piecing together all the clues he had to find out who he really is and who was after it. ‘Identity’ even worked as a standalone film if the series never to took off. ‘Supremacy‘ forced Bourne out of hiding in the best way possible – it had the balls to kill off Marie, Bourne’s ally and love interest, in the first ten minutes. Combined with his personal grief, rogue factions trying to frame Bourne and Bourne seeking redemption, ‘Supremacy’ was a perfect storm for an action-thriller while ‘Ultimatum‘ tied up all the loose ends with Bourne finding out who he really is and exposing the CIA’s crimes. There was little room for the series to progress from that point.

bourne identity fight

Despite this Universal wanted to continue the series but Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass were reluctant to return – Greengrass jokingly said that if there were a fourth Bourne movie, it would have been called ‘The Bourne Redundancy’ and Damon refused to return to the series unless Greengrass was directing. Universal hired the screenwriter of the first three movies Tony Gilroy to direct The Bourne Legacy – a film that was meant to be a sequel and spin-off to the trilogy. Gilroy seemed like a solid choice to replace Greengrass because of his experience on the series and his directional debut the thriller Michael Clayton was well received by critics. However, there were problems – back in 2011 Matt Damon called Gilroy’s screenplay for The Bourne Ultimatum ‘unreadable’ and Gilroy admitted hardly any of his ideas made it into the finished film.

Gilroy did get a fantastic cast that included Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Ed Norton and the early trailers for ‘Legacy’ made the movie seem promising – focusing on Ed Norton’s Eric Byer convincing Aaron Cross (Renner) to join a secret intelligence program. The story itself also seemed like a logical continuation of the ‘Bourne’ story, because of Bourne’s exposing Blackbriar forcing all American intelligence agencies to destroy all evidence of their covert programs and kill all the agents and anyone connected to them. But Gilroy decided to take the franchise into a sci-fi direction – a big departure for a series that aimed for realism. The program that Cross was in – Outcome – gave the agents pills that made them stronger, faster and smarter. That was bad enough, but it was made worse when it was revealed that that Cross was developmentally challenged, and he needed the pills to keep his intelligence – this idea would have been more fitting for an American Dad episode.

bourne legacy still

The Bourne Legacy also suffered from having a cripplingly slow pace and a lack of action for a movie that was supposed to be an action-thriller. This made The Bourne Legacy a surprisingly dull film with the sci-fi obscurity that makes it unmemorable.

Because of the failure of The Bourne Legacy, Universal decided to rehire Greengrass and Damon and allowed Greengrass to write the screenplay with his editor Christopher Rouse. Greengrass had stated he would only return to the series if the script were good enough – well you know what they say about people who live in glass houses. Jason Bourne was essentially a retread of The Bourne Supremacy, having the same setup and plot points – Jason Bourne is in hiding and comes out of hiding because of the actions of others and a person he is close to dies. He also has to figure out a mystery about his past, this time about his father. Alicia Vikander was pretty much playing the Joan Allen role and Bourne confronts Tommy Lee Jones’; Robert Dewey faced Bourne-like Dr. Hirsch in ‘Ultimatum’. The movie was basically a series of action scenes loosely tied together.

jason bourne - pre-riot

Greengrass and Damon are both known for being politically minded and since The Bourne Ultimatum they brought out the worst in each other. In 2010 they released Green Zone, a movie that criticizes the reasoning for the Iraq War and how the American government handled the aftermath of the invasion. They wanted to make a politically themed action movie that would appeal to mainstream audiences: what we got was an obnoxious piece that failed as an action movie had some of the worst camera work ever in a major film and simplified the history and politics to the point it was insulting.

The Bourne Ultimatum was political in nature, it was made during the height of the War on Terror, and it used these themes to great effect, being central to the plot. Jason Bourne had themes about mass surveillance of the population, but this was really a subplot shoed-in to inject some relevance into the fifth entry, and the subplot involving the publication of CIA files on the internet just gave Greengrass a chance to sound-off against Julian Assange and how he releases information.

jasonbourne0002

Greengrass and Damon have also been critical of Bourne’s spying rival James Bond. Greengrass had called Bond ‘an imperialist fuckface’ and Damon has described the MI6 agent as a ‘misogynist’ and a ‘sociopath.’ By describing Bond like this, the pair trapped Bourne in a corner that does not allow him to grow or have any real flaws. The more we know about Bourne the less interesting he has becomes. Even worst the Greengrass/Damon partnership has made Bourne into a Mary Sue – he cannot show darkness or moral ambiguity. At the end of ‘Ultimatum,’ it was revealed that Bourne it had joined the Treatstone program willingly, but that idea was retconned in the latest movie because it showed Bourne joined under false pretenses.

Jason Bourne has a great example of Greengrass and Damon’s lack of willingness to show shades of gray with Bourne’s actions in the form of Vincent Cassel’s The Asset. The Asset was a Treatstone/Blackbriar agent who was found to be working undercover in Syria, and it resulted in him being captured and tortured. This could have led to a number of possible storylines – from The Asset wanting to go after Bourne for revenge, forcing the exiled spy back in action, or The Asset going rogue and Bourne is the only man who could stop him. It was understandable why The Asset would have hated Bourne and why he would have had a cruel streak – but it was nullified by showing that he was the agent who assassinated Bourne’s dad.

vincent cassel as the asset

The Bourne Legacy did have a gateway for Jason Bourne to return to this series. It ended with Pamela Landy being made the scapegoat for the Blackbriar operation. It would have been easy enough for the series to continue down this route because Bourne would have had to come out of hiding once again to right the injustice of Landy getting the blame and show how ruthless the CIA and its hierarchy is in protecting its interests. Obviously, Greengrass decided not to go down this route.

If we compare Bourne to Bond we have seen Bond have dark moments like his guilt-ridden face during his first kill (Casino Royale), coldly killing Emile Leopold Locque and Elektra King in For Your Eyes Only and The World is Not Enough and seeing his wife killed in front of him in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Jason Bourne touched on similar territory as 2012’s Skyfall, an agent, comes out of hiding and looks at the issues of espionage in the digital age – Skyfall looked at where Bond stood in a world of hacking and cyber attacks, as well as looking at governmental oversight and the impact of 24 hour media. It showed how the Bond series could evolve with the times. Bourne is stuck in the same place.

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So where could the Bourne series go? The recent movies have had good ideas, but they have been squandered. The Bourne series is set in a grounded universe, so this prevents Bourne and other agents going on outlandish global adventures where spies go to high-end events, meet extravaganza villains and stop some devastating weapon being captured or released. The series itself has set up some avenues to explore – there is already the idea that Landy is set up by the CIA, and she is demanded to get payback and in Jason Bourne’s psychological report states that he is still a patriot and could be convinced to rejoin the CIA. However, it would go against the series’ theme of Bourne being an outsider and the CIA being the big bad villain. Ways around it could be Bourne reluctantly rejoining the CIA, either to stop a greater threat, the CIA needing Bourne because he is the only man who can go on a dangerous mission, has vital intelligence from his past that could save civilians or goes the Captain America route, he stands for American value but not necessarily the American government. Bourne could also be forced back into the CIA because he is targeted by a rogue agent who Bourne crossed in his past, or we could see a super-spy having to fight another super-spy – this was what should have happened in Jason Bourne or face a super-spy from a foreign power. Jason Bourne also did leave the door open for a team up between Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross, referring to the Outcome and Larx programs. Or Bourne could go down a route like Jack Reacher in his series or Robert McCall in The Equalizer movie, becoming a vigilante who uses his spy skills to right wrongs.

Continuing the Bourne series would be a tough challenge that has been made more difficult because Jason Bourne has wasted some excellent story ideas. Whatever happens, the series needs to let Bourne evolve as a character and because of its realistic world, they need to accept the world isn’t black-and-white. If Greengrass does return to the series, the producers need to rein him in and make him and Damon collaborate more with the producers and writers in finding a way to continue the series – and not let it be a way to for the pair to simply air their political grievances. Story and characters come first.

Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Please correct in your story referencing “BLACKFRIAR”, it’s supposed to be “BLACKBRIAR”.

    I was looking up things about the Bourne series and came across your article referring Blackfriar and said to myself that’s not correct. So to double check I started to do some digging. I found the below information in Fandom to include a screenshot taken from the movie showing a file cover with “BLACKBRIAR” clearly shown. Honest mistakes happen. Accuracy in writing is most important to have people read your writings opposed to skipping it finding errors. Attention to detail shows that you know your subject matter that you convey to your readers. I enjoyed your article for the most part, until I saw Blackfriar. Working under deadlines can these things to happen.
    Thank you for your time
    Rick S.

    The Bourne Ultimatum

    At the beginning of The Bourne Ultimatum, Simon Ross, a British investigative reporter working for the Guardian, is meeting with Neil Daniels in Turin, Italy to gather information for his next article. However, Daniels will only relinquish information regarding “Blackbriar” off the record and instructs Ross to turn off his tape recorder. After Ross returns to London, the ECHELON system detects Ross inquiring about “Blackbriar” with a colleague over his cell phone. This gains the immediate attention of the CIA, specifically the “Blackbriar”
    program. Noah Vosen arrives at the “Blackbriar” offices and takes command of their primary analyst team who immediately extract all known intelligence on Simon Ross in an attempt to trace his knowledge of “Blackbriar” back to its source. Vosen instructs the analysts to activate their asset in London, codenamed Paz and put him on standby. In the meantime, they continue to gather intelligence on Ross and work to tap his phone lines and hack his e-mails.

    Screen Shot 40.png
    “Blackbriar file”
    In the midst of their hunt, Jason Bourne contacts Ross on a colleague’s work phone which confuses Vosen and the “Blackbriar” analysts. Bourne sets up a secret meeting with Ross at Waterloo Station in London, but unfortunately one of “Blackbriar’s” agents is on-site and through audio surveillance intercepts Ross destination as he instructs a cabbie where to take him. Vosen sends their “grab” team to Waterloo in the hope of capturing Ross and renditioning him so they can interrogate him and learn who his source is. However, with Bourne’s aid, Ross is able to evade his would-be captures for a time but is eventually overcome with anxiety and assassinated by Paz who was lying in wait with a Sig 552 Sniper, reminiscent of The Professor’s from The Bourne Identity. Bourne manages to grab Ross’ notes off of his person before fleeing the scene and pursuing Paz into the London Underground where Paz escaped on a tube train. The notes reveal Ross’ source to be Daniels.

    After the incident at Waterloo, CIA director Ezra Kramer orders Vosen to bring Pamela Landy on board due to her familiarity and prior experience with Bourne. It is through these circumstances that Landy asks Vosen about the true nature of “Blackbriar”. Vosen explains that Blackbriar is essentially the umbrella program for all of the CIA’s black operations, including “lethal action” as Landy put it. One of the many pros in regards to “Blackbriar” is the ability for its commanders to make real-time decisions instead of waiting for authorization from Washington D.C.; “no more red tape” according to Vosen.

    Landy is eventually forced into opposition against Vosen when he gives another asset, Desh Bouksani, the order to eliminate Nicky Parsons along with Bourne after he eliminates Daniels, which makes fairly good sense seeing how Nicky has now betrayed them for a rogue agent. Landy scolds Vosen that he doesn’t have the authority to kill her, one of their own, which Vosen rebuts that he, in fact, does have the ability to kill a traitor. After Bourne eliminates Desh, he has Nicky use Desh’s phone to code in that Bourne and Nicky had been successfully eliminated to throw Blackbriar off their trail. Bourne and Nicky part ways and Bourne heads to New York City to try to solve the puzzle of his origins.

    When he arrives in New York he’s aided by Landy and eventually tricks Vosen and his entire team into following her off-site while he infiltrates Vosen’s office and manages to hack his safe to steal all of Vosen’s classified documents containing “Blackbriar’s” (and probably Treadstone’s) secrets. When Bourne arrives at the training facility at 415 East 71st Street, he’s met by Landy, to whom he gives the documents. She, in turn, faxes them off to a peer in Washington. Her actions ultimately lead to the arrest and prosecution of Vosen, Kramer and Dr. Albert Hirsch who was responsible for the design and implementation of the Treadstone/“Blackbriar” asset training program.

    As the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, “Blackbriar” is for all intents and purposes shut down due to the criminal investigation.

    Bourne Legacy

    In The Bourne Legacy, the cover-up for Blackbriar in the US Senate hearings contends that “Blackbriar” is the name of the operation to hunt down rogue Treadstone agent Jason Bourne. However, this is inconsistent with what Ward Abbott revealed to the Senate Oversight Committee about “Blackbriar” at the end of The Bourne Identity. The retcon for “Blackbriar” reveals that both it and Treadstone are both Beta programs for creating assassins with genetic engineering.

    Assets
    Targets
    Trivia

  2. [“First and foremost the original trilogy was a perfect set of movies.”]

    I disagree. The continuity issues started popping up in the second film, “The Bourne Supremacy”. It really got bad in “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Jason Bourne”. And “The Bourne Legacy” continued some of the continuity issues from the third film.

    I don’t believe that the first three films that starred Matt Damon were a “perfect set”.

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