With Jason Bourne coming out July 29, it’s time to take a look back at the action franchise, see where it started, see how it evolved, and see where it wound up before Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass decided to return. Welcome to leg two of The Road to Jason Bourne.
At the end of The Bourne Identity, things appeared on the uptick for Jason Bourne – having vanquished his foes and fled to Greece to meet up with Marie (Franka Potente) to live a quiet life off the grid – and that’s probably because Universal was uncertain whether or not this debut would be successful enough to garner sequels. But when the original pulled in twice it’s budget at the box office ($121 million domestically against a $60 million budget), a franchise was – if you can excuse my lame humor – “Bourne.”
Doug Liman was not going to return for The Bourne Supremacy, and the whole thing was a bit of a scandal (it seems Liman was not up for the task of a big-budget action movie in 202, and producer Frank Marshall was unimpressed. Instead, Frank Marshall sought the jittery camera of Paul Greengrass to fill Liman’s shoes, having been impressed with Greengrass’s work on Bloody Sunday. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay would also lean into darkness much more than Identity, with Damon’s Jason Bourne transforming into a more tortured soul.
We pick up two years later, and Jason and Marie are living a quiet life in a ramshackle beach house in India. Jason is suffering from severe headaches, brought on by spotty nightmares of a past job with Treadstone. He can’t put them together, and the closure he thought he had back in Greece at the end of the original film is replaced by anguish. Little does he know he’s been set up in Berlin, where our Russian villains (Karl Urban and Karel Roden) have framed him for the assassination of two CIA agents. And they plan on getting to India and take him down. The Berlin ambush draws the attention of one Pamela Landy, played with an incredibly strong presence by Joan Allen. Landy is all business and power suit, and she wants Jason Bourne brought down.
The early sequence in India delivers one of the more shocking twists in a genre film of this type: Marie is killed by Karl Urban’s Kirill – who’s traveled to India to wipe out Bourne after framing him in Berlin – as her and Jason try and make their escape. The moment is still incredible, unexpected as the rifle bullet slams her head forward and their car plummets from a bridge into the water. This adds a crucial layer to Bourne’s motivations, and it pushes our hero into a dark place.
The plot then whirs along as Bourne heads to Berlin and tries to piece together both his fragmented memories and this current malaise. In the first film, Matt Damon played Jason Bourne appropriately confused and open faced, desperate to figure out anything he can. This time around, he takes that energy and draws it inward. He never smiles, not once, and is dressed in black the entire time. He is sure of his skills as a perfect weapon, and is much more comfortable using them. This is a much darker, more streamlined character with clear motivations, and Damon perfectly taps into that specific sort of energy.
Gilroy’s screenplay does tend to meander too long in the CIA’s various command centers, where Landy and Brian Cox’s Ward Abbott bicker back and forth and try and figure out which way is up. The dialogue is quick and sharp, but repetitive, and only when we’re dealing with Bourne and his escapades does the story sing. He visits the home of a fellow assassin and ends up making short work of him, mostly with a rolled-up newspaper. He eludes numerous CIA attempts to corner him, and of course he flies across Eastern European streets in a car chase. Or two.
In 2004, Paul Greengras’s shaky-cam style was, if not entirely new (Tony Scott was on top of this a few years earlier), rare enough for audiences to take notice. Seeing it again with 2016 eyes, while still noticeable, the vibrating camera isn’t nearly as distracting. The film surrounding those kinetic and dizzying action sequences is rather straightforward and easy to follow. Greengrass’s decision to disorient us in the middle of hand-to-hand combat or car chases feels right. It works to write a specific cinematic language for the story. Fights and car chases are disorienting, at least I think they have to be, right?
The problem became, after The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass M.O. seeped into a number of less talented filmmakers who took the shaky-cam aesthetic to annoyingly overzealous heights. Remember Battle: LA? It’s okay if you don’t, not many do. Anyway, it was one example of shaky cam use with little consequence or reason. It isn’t Greengrass’s fault so many hack filmmakers began using this technique to hide flaws in their own films. In The Bourne Supremacy (and Ultimatum and, presumably, the upcoming fifth film), the camera informs the story rather than the other way around.
There’s something to be said about the film’s influence on the imitators. This is, after all, the franchise that brought us the incredibly overused “side-impact-out-of-nowhere” car crash. That bit is still being used ad nauseum today, even in dramas like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Demolition.
For all its maneuvering from one city street to the next, very little actually happens in The Bourne Supremacy. There’s a plot, and action, and it moves the story forward and sets up our hero for the third entry, but other than changing tone and reinventing action storytelling for a whole slew of directors, the story itself only happens in two major acts, with an epilogue allowing Jason Bourne to find at least a little closure and discover his real name. That isn’t to say it’s bad, it’s still one of the better action movies in the 21st century’s first decade. But when compared to the bookend pieces of the overarching trilogy, this one feels slight.
The box office more than doubled this time around ($176 million against a $75 million budget), and three years later Damon and Greengrass would complete a near perfect trilogy with The Bourne Ultimatum.