Revisiting The Bourne Franchise

We’ve never really covered the Bourne movies on this site however, I figured during this downtime I would binge them over a weekend and do a little retrospective including the original Bourne Identity from 1988 and the Prime series Treadstone.

I go into spoilers here so if you haven’t seen any of these movies then best not to continue.

The Bourne Identity (1988)

Plot: An unconscious man is washed ashore on the beach of a small French village during a heavy storm. A retired doctor takes care of the unconscious stranger. When the mysterious man recovers, he can’t remember a thing. He does not know his name, he does not know where his flashback memories come from, and he does not know why the access code for an anonymous Swiss bank account is implanted in his thigh. As he seeks his own identity, things quickly become dangerous. There are attempts to kill him, he is well known in first class hotels across Europe, and worst of all, there are strange similarities between his memories and reported actions of the notorious terrorist, Carlos the Jackal.

Before Matt Damon made Jason Bourne a modern-day action icon the very same character was portrayed by Richard Chamberlain back in 1988’s The Bourne Identity which is apparently a more faithful adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel.

The story is generally the same (obviously) but the character of Bourne is surprisingly far more ruthless in this iteration. Richard Chamberlain brings an icy coldness to the character which arguably makes him more believable. Jason Bourne was a killer after all so the way he behaves makes sense.

This was a TV miniseries and yet it was also grittier than the 2002 movie with poor Jaclyn Smith’s character Marie St. Jacques at one point having a goon attempt to rape her.  She is very different from Franka Potente’s version as in the Matt Damon movie she willingly drives him after he pays her whereas in this Bourne takes her hostage by gunpoint which once again feels more like what a person in that profession would do; it’s in his nature as it’s his programming. This does make him a little harder to sympathise with at first but Chamberlain’s excellent performance still allows us to slowly warm to him as their relationship grows.

This is also a bit of an Indiana Jones reunion as we have Denholm Elliott as Dr. Geoffrey Washburn and Wolf Kahler as Gold Glasses. Kahler always made for an effective villain and this is no different; he doesn’t have a huge role but he is still a nasty piece of work.

Where the recent Bourne movies are all about modern technology this is a simpler tale making it arguably feel more authentic for the time period. I always found the tech in the recent movies awesome but some of it seems unlikely; I mean you can find anyone using cameras, phones and other gadgets and yet I still can’t play YouTube videos while opening other apps on my phone? Ok then…

Although this is a far longer tale (nearly 3 hours long) there is still plenty of action with some fistfights, shootings and car chases; it’s less choreographed looking and the fights feel more realistic. In reality in a fight there is lots of falling over, rolling on the ground and it’s anything but flashy and that’s the way it is capture here. There is blood and Bourne himself isn’t quite so invincible getting injured regularly.

Looking at both movies I would say the 2002 Bourne Identity is slicker looking visually and maybe better paced but the 1988 Bourne Identity is still an excellent watch with Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith making for a very engaging duo.

Overall, The Bourne Identity is probably a more faithful adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel with decent performances and despite the long runtime it moves along at a fast pace and still has no shortage of action.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

Plot: The story of a man (Matt Damon), salvaged, near death, from the ocean by an Italian fishing boat. When he recuperates, the man suffers from total amnesia, without identity or background… except for a range of extraordinary talents in fighting, linguistic skills and self-defense that speak of a dangerous past. He sets out on a desperate search-assisted by the initially rebellious Marie (Franka Potente) – to discover who he really is, and why he’s being lethally pursued by assassins.

Post 9/11 filmmakers were unsure just how to make action movies for a while; could they still have explosions? One-liners? What would audiences want to see? That was the dilemma faced by writer Tony Gilroy and director Doug Liman when they were making The Bourne Identity, based on the books by Robert Ludlum.

I recently rewatched the original 2002 Bourne movie with Matt Damon and went through the special features of the DVD which had the “explosive extended cut” where we get to see the writer and director discussing how the movie changed to become the franchise that would shape action movies in the future.

There is an alternate opening and ending which would have made the movie essentially be in flashback as Gilroy was afraid that after 9/11 the movie would become immediately dated. After watching those scenes I’m glad they went in the direction they did as the final product is a much tighter film.

It’s no secret that I never loved this series before as I had always thought they were action movies made by and for people who don’t normally like real action movies. After revising The Bourne Identity, I think perhaps I was too hard on it as this first movie remains a very entertaining action thriller. I don’t think it’s a classic or anything but the story flows well and Matt Damon is a surprisingly viable protagonist. He trained in various martial arts for three months before shooting so the fight scenes would look authentic. Doug Liman should have made the other movies in the series as the action in this movie is coherent and realistic without ever resorting to the shaky cam tactics Paul Greengrass would use later.

The Bourne Identity has an impressive supporting cast that includes Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Julia Styles, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Clive Owen and a young Walton Goggins. Chris Cooper always makes for an effective villain and his character Conklin feels very real and the type of person you would believe is employed by the C.I.A. or other such organizations. He works with Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) on a project called Treadstone which essentially creates human weapons. Bourne is one of these weapons except after he fails to assassinate a target he is shot and left for dead in the ocean. When he awakens, he has no memory of who he was before and begins a search for answers.

Along the way he meets Marie (Franka Potente) who is arguably the most appealing character of the entire series; she is a pure soul that has gone through her share of hard times but her instant connection with Bourne will change her life forever. I would literally watch a movie or series just about her as she is just someone you would love to be around.

I love movies which span the world giving us international locations which I think is just necessary in stories like this; The Bourne Identity takes place in various places around Europe so it feels like an old-school espionage thriller.

The music score isn’t particularly memorable and this might be the movie that changed the way movie scores were done (for the worse); there is no main theme but I suppose Moby’s Extreme Ways became the Bourne theme. I do, however, love the use of Paul Oakenfold’s Switch On during the impressive car chase which is one of the film’s highlights.

As it’s essentially about political assassinations The Bourne Identity takes itself very seriously and post 9/11 American filmmakers didn’t really want to make “fun” action movies; everything had to be introspective with shades of grey which suited the times we were in. Thankfully after a few years everyone started to lighten up again and we got movies like John Wick and The Expendables which brought back old-fashioned action movies.

Overall, The Bourne Identity remains arguably the best in the franchise giving us a new modern action icon in Jason Bourne and there are enough impressive fights and set-pieces to make it worth revisiting. I also wish Marie was real so I could marry her but that’s a story for another day…

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Plot: Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is living in India when he is framed by Russian agent Kirill (Karl Urban) for the theft of millions from the CIA. Kirill begins to pursue Bourne, intending to assassinate him — but while Bourne and his girlfriend, Marie (Franka Potente), are on the run, a shot meant for him kills her instead. Vowing revenge, Bourne sets out to prove his innocence and bring the culprits to justice, but he has to evade CIA head Pamela Landry (Joan Allen), who is convinced he is guilty.

The Bourne Supremacy is another solid entry in the series and may well be the most emotionally intense of them all.

Jason Bourne is living out his life with Marie but an unknown enemy frames Bourne for the murder of two operatives which starts the chase all over again. *Spoiler alert* Alas they kill off my beloved Marie and I am still upset about it to this day; she deserved better however, that scene where Karl Urban’s Russian assassin shoots her makes me gasp every time. It’s funny how this series manages to make violence shocking without an R-rating because we’ve grown to actually care about the characters.

Paul Greengrass takes over the reigns as director and although there is some of his usual shaky cam I remember it being worse than it is but it is still prevalent during the fight between Bourne and Jarda (Martin Csokas). I understand what Greengrass was going for as he liked the fights to be raw and unglamorous and the build up to the fight is expertly done. The choreography was by Jeff Imada who used the same fighting style (Kali Arnis) from the first movie which keeps the continuity in the action scenes.

The climactic car chase is spectacular and a bit of a modern classic but there is some incredible stunt work throughout the movie. I was watching how they put together the house explosion and it was all done practically which is one thing you can say about this series; most the action is all done without CG trickery so it always looks realistic.

Supremacy moves at a breakneck pace rarely stopping for breath as Bourne searches for answers as to who has set him up. On his trail is Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) who at first suspects Bourne but as the story progresses, she realises that something feels off and she begins to uncover the truth. Returning as Ward Abbot Brian Cox is at his most evil in this entry at one point even killing one of his own men to hide his secret.

The acting is pretty flawless and the most intense scene has Bourne interrogating Nicky (Julia Styles); both actors are at their best in this sequence as Bourne seems to be at breaking point and you believe he might just shoot her. Nicky is sobbing and utterly terrified and it is just a scene of raw emotion. You understand why Bourne is so angry as he has lost the woman he loves and he failed to protect her so you get why he is so fueled by rage.

I love watching Karl Urban in anything and he makes for an intimidating antagonist who will stop at nothing to take out Bourne. I would have liked to see the two of them have a proper fight but the car chase was suitably epic.

The score is better in this entry with John Powell providing a subtle theme but it’s definitely there with Moby’s Extreme Ways once again playing over the end credits.

Once again the action takes us all over the globe including India, Russia and Europe so it helps to keep things fresh and interesting.

Overall, The Bourne Supremacy is another entertaining franchise entry and although there is some shaky cam I found it helped give the story more intensity and it didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did before.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Plot: A former CIA assassin continues his quest to fill in memory gaps. When a `Guardian’ reporter stumbles onto his trail, the man spies his chance to blow the Blackbriar black-ops brigade wide open. With some very powerful people intent on keeping their skeletons buried, he is in more danger than ever before, as his former paymasters send a series of elite killers after their reformed ex-colleague.

The Bourne Ultimatum is the third entry in the series and it’s this one that I consider the most influential for modern action movies; if you watch Quantum of Solace again it so wishes it was this movie even ripping off the rooftop chase. I definitely like this one a lot less than the previous two; this is when Greengrass started to allow the shaky cam and quick cuts to take over, but I also found the story was just more of the same and didn’t grab me the same way.

I like that we find out more about the character of Bourne (and that his real name is David Webb) but I never feel anything watching this movie… aside from ocassional motion sickness. Without Marie Bourne is mildly less interesting and the fact that he is always practically two steps ahead of the CIA and anyone who is after him is starting to get a bit tedious.

I have however, grown to love the character of Nicky (Julia Styles) who has now become an ally of Bourne’s which feels right as she was never a bad person. Pam Landy (Joan Allen) returns and she is also on Bourne’s side especially when she realises her colleagues Noah Vosen (David Straithairn) and Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) want Bourne dead as they think he spoke to a reporter called Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) to try and expose them.

The real source, however, was Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton) who wants to expose these dark deeds and once he mentions Blackbriar (the newest incarnation of Treadstone) the chase begins once again.

Any movie that has the great Albert Finney in the cast always gets two thumbs up from me as he was always such a fantastic actor; he may not have had a huge role in this but it was pivotal especially for the character of Bourne/Webb and his history.

I forgot Scott Adkins was in this; it’s only a brief role but he does get a quick fight with Bourne which should have been longer. If only Greengrass knew what a talent he had in front of him as it would have been amazing to see Scott have a bigger role in a film of this caliber (and budget).

We do get a sizeable role for Joey Ansah (Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist) who plays Desh, the asset assigned to take out Bourne, Nicky and Daniels. He has that great chase over the rooftops climaxing in what would be amazing fight scene if only we could actually see it. It must be so frustrating for Jeff Imada to go to all that trouble choreographing the fight, but it’s ruined by the fast cuts. As I said before I understand that it’s trying to add more intensity and realism, but I would rather be able to see what’s going on.

John Powell returns to score the movie giving us the same themes from the last one; it’s hardly a classic score but it works for the type of movie this is even if it’s not the type of music you would listen to outside of the movie.

There is an impressive car chase towards the end of this movie which once again has some amazing stunts. Aside from that I find most of this movie a blur and I think this is where the franchise should have ended. It didn’t though and Jeremy Renner came on board as Aron Cross which you can read about below…

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Plot: When the actions of Jason Bourne spark a fire that threatens to burn down decades of research across a number of secret intelligence agencies, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), the man who built the programs, decides he must sacrifice one of them: Outcome. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of Outcome’s six agents, and research scientist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) go on the run when Byer targets them for termination. But Cross proves to be a far deadlier target than Byer realizes.

I didn’t love this film when it first came out but after rewatching The Bourne Legacy recently it’s definitely better than I remember. Writer Tony Gilroy takes over directing from Paul Greengrass so the action scenes are far more coherent again.

Legacy takes a while to get going and lacks the tighter pacing of previous entries but I really enjoy the scenes with Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) out in the wilderness battling the elements and even fighting with wolves.

Oscar Isaac makes an appearance as another asset who meets Cross in the wilderness but is taken out rather spectacularly by a drone strike.

I’ll be controversial here and say I think I prefer Aaron Cross to Jason Bourne as a protagonist; he has a dry sense of humour and feels more like an old-school action hero where he always shows up at the last second to save the day. Although we have a different lead Legacy still feels like a Bourne movie and the story continues on from where Ultimatum left off.

The events of the previous movies are what trigger the actions taken by the agency against Cross and the other Treadstone assets who are all to be terminated before the program is exposed fully. Jason Bourne’s whereabouts are still unknown and sadly Matt Damon never appears in this (aside from a few photos) but I think they missed an opportunity to set up a movie with both of these characters working together to take down the agency once and for all. I think too much time has passed now but it’s a shame as it could have been quite awesome.

Even with subtitles on I struggle to understand all the medical and tech jargon that’s used in this movie but that’s more my shortcomings as I’m just not that bright. People have complained about the script to The Bourne Legacy but it’s very sophisticated and the movie resonates more after several viewings.

On my first watch I found Rachel Weisz’s Doctor Marta Shearing a little annoying as all she seemed to do was cry a lot but I think I was too hard on her. After what she went through in that still devastating scene where one of her co-workers starts to shoot everyone in her lab it would obviously make her a little hysterical as it’s severe trauma.

There is definitely a formula now with the series with a protagonist who is forced to go on the run and is chased by the agency around the world; usually there is a woman who wants to help and gets caught up in the action with everything climaxing with an impressive car chase in a city. The chase in Manilla is quite awesome I might add, but it’s all getting a bit too familiar.

The action is undoubtedly slick and the scene with Cross rescuing Shearing at her house is intense and one of the best of the movie.

Edward Norton and Stacey Keach make for good evil bureaucrats who are determined to take out Cross and anyone else who will expose their dark deeds. Poor Pam Landy is also made to be a scapegoat but it’s nice to see Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and David Strathairn appear again as it connects the movies together seamlessly.

Louis Ozawa is almost like a Terminator as the asset LARX #3 who chases Cross and Shearing around Manilla and I have to give respect to Marta for taking out LARX in a rather painful way.

David Leitch and Clayton J. Barber also have roles in this which I never noticed before so be sure to keep an eye out for them.

I was thinking while watching that these movies would be perfect for the likes of Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais and actually cast them as the leads. They have the fighting skills to be believable in any of the action scenes and I would love to see them facing off against the agency.

Overall, The Bourne Legacy is the longest entry in the franchise and at times it does feel it but it’s still engaging stuff from beginning to end with some impressive action scenes making it worth a re-evaluation. Jeremy Renner made for an appealing protagonist and it’s too bad we never got to see more of Aaron Cross.

Jason Bourne (2016)

Plot: It’s been 10 years since Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) walked away from the agency that trained him to become a deadly weapon. Hoping to draw him out of the shadows, CIA director Robert Dewey assigns hacker and counterinsurgency expert Heather Lee to find him. Lee suspects that former operative Nicky Parsons is also looking for him. As she begins tracking the duo, Bourne finds himself back in action battling a sinister network that utilizes terror and technology to maintain unchecked power.

Jason Bourne is the final movie in the franchise but it’s also the most disappointing; as I stated above we could have had an awesome follow up from Legacy by having Bourne/Cross team up and bring the agency down once and for all but it wasn’t meant to be. Instead we get more of the same with pretty much the exact story as before. Bourne is brought out of hiding again and the agency starts to hunt him down but as usual they are never up to the task. He finds out more about his past and that his father was involved with creating Treadstone but now the agency has created Ironhand which is the new and improved Black Ops program.

Nicky (Julia Styles) is back but is taken out and forgotten about rather quickly; I thought she deserved better after all she did in the series before.

Alicia Vikander joins the cast and is believably cold and ruthless so you never really know what she is thinking.

The always evil Vincent Cassell is known only as Asset and is on Bourne’s trail looking for revenge as it’s due to Bourne’s interference previously that blew an op having Asset captured and tortured… so you can understand where he is coming from.

Tommy Lee Jones brings his stone-faced stoicism as CIA Director Robert Dewey who wants Bourne taken out once and for all however, he should know by now how this is going to end.

By this stage the Bourne series was already seeming tired and this movie really adds nothing to the franchise still feeling like a missed opportunity.  The biggest mistake was bringing back Paul Greengrass as director who directs like a child who has stolen his dad’s camera. It shakes constantly and I always have to stop the movie about halfway through for my nausea to calm down.

Is he really that inept that he has no confidence in his actors or stunt crews so he makes sure we can never see what’s going on? At one point Bourne is looking at a phone and there are words on the screen but the camera was moving so much you couldn’t make out what it said.

What’s so frustrating is that in that hands of a decent director it could have been a bit of a classic actioner as it starts off like Rambo III with Bourne in the desert fighting people for money. Sadly, the fights are all incomprehensible and the stunt choreographer’s hard work is wasted.

Damon was jacked as Bourne and is comfortable in the role of the invincible (but world weary) badass at this stage. The action is all stuff we’ve seen before with a few fight scenes and it ends with a car chase which is well done when you can see what’s going on. It’s nice to get a climactic fight scene for once with Bourne having a showdown with the Asset but once again it would help if I could watch it without throwing up.

The story wasn’t all that complicated and I liked the social media aspect and how it questions the issue of privacy, so it’s all very current too. Tony Gilroy didn’t return as the writer so that explains why the script lacks the same sophistication as previous entries, but I’ve seen worse.

Overall, Jason Bourne has its moments, but nothing is really resolved by the end and it just feels like more of the same; Paul Greengrass needs to invest in a steadycam to actually film scenes the audience can watch and enjoy rather than reaching for a sick bag. The car chase through Vegas is nearly spectacular and it’s a pretty fast 2 hours but I can’t help wondering what could have been.

Treadstone (2020) TV Series

Plot: The Treadstone project, having created super spy Jason Bourne, turns its attention on a new protocol to develop unstoppable superhuman assassins.

It’s too bad Treadstone just got cancelled after one season as it took the world of Bourne in a bold new direction.

Jason Bourne himself is never mentioned however, he is referred to as “the asset in New York” a few times. This series is basically giving a history of the Treadstone project as we follow various assets around the world; it’s set in the present day but also flashes back to 1973 as an American C.I.A. agent called Bentley (Jeremy Irvine) is taken prisoner in Budapest and experimented on by the K.G.B.

It took a few episodes for me to get into it as there are a lot of characters to get to know but I found by the end of the series I cared about all of them and I’m profoundly disappointed we won’t get to see what happens next.

I’m not going to go into all the various characters here but I thought Doug (Brian J. Smith) was a great protagonist and he even gets a badass barfight in the first episode. Speaking of which the action in Treadstone is arguably better than the Bourne films; we get to see all the fight scenes and chases and there is very little in the way of shaky cam. This is also hard R stuff and doesn’t have to worry about getting a PG-13 rating so expect swearing and brutality galore.

Poor Bentley doesn’t half go through a nightmare in this series as he is tortured mentally and physically by the K.G.B. while also being manipulated by Petra (Emilia Schüle) who may or may not develop feelings for him.

Petra is another fantastic character who will do anything for her country and despite the fact she is as ruthless as they come we still take to her due to strong performances by both Emilia Schüle (young Petra) and Gabrielle Scharnitzky who plays Petra in the present day.

Like the movies the action takes us all around the world with assets in Korea, Paris, Berlin and more.

Treadstone still feels like it takes place in the same universe as the Bourne movies but there is less focus on the hyper real technology and it focuses more on the characters and how the assets struggle with who they are.

I kind of fell in love with Tara (Tracy Ifeachor) who is a disgraced reporter obsessed with finding a missile called Stiletto Six and as the story progresses we find out why.

Matt Edwards (Omar Metwally) was a true blue hero who finds out about Treadstone and ends up having the agency turn against him as he goes rogue. The agency are really beyond Bond villains in how diabolical they are even killing their own people for the “greater good”. Michael Gaston is believably evil and cold as Levine, one of the men in charge and he is just a total monster.

Although a lot of the story is wrapped up by the end of this season I wanted to see what was going to happen with SoYun Pak (Hyo-joo Han) who is the North Korean asset. Her story was fascinating and it’s too bad we’ll never see how it concluded.

Overall, Treadstone is a superlative action series with some fantastic fight scenes and characters you grow to care about; hopefully some other streaming service will pick it up so we could get just one more season to wrap it up.