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Bourne Films

Entry updated 26 September 2020. Tagged: Film.

Very loosely based on the Jason Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum and subsequently Eric Van Lustbader, the Bourne films comprise one tightly-knit trilogy starring Matt Damon; plus the first of a projected series of continuations starring Jeremy Renner as a differently modified CIA operative, who is also on the run; plus a late continuation of the original story – perhaps because the outlier parallel story tanked – again with Damon. A much earlier made-for-television version of the first book – released as The Bourne Identity (1988), directed by Roger Young – adheres closely to Ludlum's essentially non-fantastic thriller format, with a kindly view of the CIA; it is not discussed below.

1. The Bourne Identity Film (2002). Universal Pictures/The Kennedy/Marshall Company/Hypnotic/Kalima Productions/Stillking Films. Directed by Doug Liman. Written by Tony Gilroy and W Blake Herron, based on The Bourne Identity (1980) by Robert Ludlum. Cast includes Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Matt Damon, Franka Potente and Julia Stiles. 119 minutes. Colour.

In the Mediterranean Sea, out of sight of land, a man (Damon) is found floating, arms spread as though he had been crucified. He is rescued by a commercial fishing ship bound eventually for Marseille: but more exactly, he is reborn, having emerged nameless from the amniotic waters, with stigmata-like gunshot wounds in his back which heal with great speed, and suffering from near total Amnesia. A medically competent crew member extracts a surgically embedded laser projectile from his thigh; when activated it displays the number of a safety deposit box in a Zurich bank. Meanwhile, at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, news comes that a recent CIA-mounted covert assassination attempt on the exiled ruler of Nigeria has inexplicably failed; the operative responsible has disappeared into the sea and it is hoped that he is dead. Over the course of the trilogy, it becomes increasingly clear that the CIA's increasingly desperate campaign against Bourne is motivated by a fear that if he goes free he will tell the truth about his several missions for the agency.

Two weeks later, after landing in Marseille, the unnamed man goes to Zurich; when he is accosted by police as a vagrant, he discovers he possesses abnormal combat skills; the police officers are hospitalized. He then successfully accesses the safety deposit box, which contains a stack of passports in various names but all showing his face, plus a lot of money. The name on the top passport is Jason Bourne, which he takes. A bank spy informs Alexander Conklin (Cooper), head of the Treadstone division of the CIA responsible for the assassination attempt, that Bourne has surfaced; Conklin activates three special operatives to kill him. Hiring the randomly selected young Marie Kreutz (Potente) to drive him to Paris for $20,000, Bourne escapes Zurich, just before the ubiquitous CIA surveillance apparatus (its existence obviously unknown to the Swiss) can track his course. This is the first evocation of a reiterated demonstration of justified Paranoia about the American intelligence network's ability to spy on anyone anywhere; it will shape the trilogy as a whole.

Bourne now applies an expanding repertory of seemingly supernatural skills – including unarmed combat, instant memorization of any map, uncanny sense of location – to the task of keeping himself and Kreutz alive; and it becomes increasingly clear that he is not a simply a well-trained assassin but a Cyborg. Bourne is a Superman, and his trajectory will be one common to that breed: a redemptive transformation from Antihero to Hero, during the course of which successive fracturings of his amnesia will uncover new grounds both for remorse and for revenge. After much agile mayhem, The Bourne Identity climaxes in a confrontation with Conklin, who tells him he is a defective Weapon, and that he cost a nonrefundable $30,000,000 to create, a sum which, even after inflation, dwarfs the development costs of Steve Austin (Lee Majors) in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978), a comparison no experienced viewer of sf film could be expected to miss. At this point, Bourne's amnesia lifts suddenly, and he remembers refusing to assassinate the Nigerian ruler after catching sight of his small children. He now "quits" the CIA, shooting his way out of the Paris safe house. Conklin, who has become expendable because he cannot control his weapon, is himself shot by a Bourne-like operative under orders from his boss Ward Abbott (Cox). Bourne reunites with Kreutz in Mykonos, Greece. They seem to have escaped.

There can be no underestimating the allure of cheap symbolism. But in this case the glaring homophone – "bourne" and "born" – that underwrites the film from its first moments never foregrounds a claim that Bourne may be a messiah aborning (which he is not) or that he is seeking Transcendence beyond the fields we know (which is not the same as being able to say sorry, an ability he must acquire in the next instalment). The Bourne Identity may follow commercial imperatives in its action scenes (some of them prolonged as fatuously as usual), but its subversive take on the CIA and all it represents here is exposed to the viewer mainly through those scenes. A decade or so later after its 2002 release, this exposé may seem an expression of common sense. It did not necessarily seem so then.

2. The Bourne Supremacy Film (2004). Universal Pictures/THETA Produktionsgesellschaft/The Kennedy/Marshall Company. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Tony Gilroy, based on The Bourne Supremacy (1986) by Robert Ludlum. Cast includes Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Julia Stiles and Karl Urban. 108 minutes. Colour.

Very little new sf content is added to this sequel, though there is no arbitrary reconfiguring of that content in genre terms. The lifting of his amnesia in the first film has proven only partial. Two years after the past-haunted Bourne (Dillon) and Kreutz (Potente) go to ground in Goa, India, private assassin Kirill (Urban) kills her in error, missing Bourne, whose death had been commissioned by a Russian oligarch and CIA executive Ward Abbot (Cox), as part of a campaign to blame him for their joint theft of $20,000,000 from CIA funds and Kirill's subsequent assassination of two CIA agents. Bourne sets off for Europe, gaining in Berlin some further memories. But the loss of his partner, unusually for an action film, remains a constant source of grief, and from this point The Bourne Supremacy begins to confound expectations. Bourne remains a samurai-like Superman, and does kill a similarly trained assassin who attempts to turn him in. But he kills no one else. The CIA as a whole, in its attempts to prevent his turning into a deadly whistleblower, is constantly wrong-footed by his actions, in which revenge is gradually sidelined as a motive in favour of atonement.

As in the first film, breaks in his Amnesia further the plot, allowing Bourne to understand that in the course of his first assignment as an operative he not only killed a Russian politician – a "democratic idealist and outspoken critic of privatization", which is to say an obvious target for covert assassination – but also his wife, arranging the evidence so that she seemed to be a murderer who then committed suicide. Constantly on the run from the banjaxed but deadly CIA, he travels to Moscow to tell his victims' traumatized daughter that her parents were not criminals who abandoned her in death, but targets. Almost in passing, he exposes the treacherous criminality of Abbott (Cox) from the previous film, but leaves him to kill himself. In Moscow, en route to make his peace with his victims' daughter, he is chased again by the assassin Kirill, but does not kill him when given the chance. He is a self-changed man.

Director Paul Greengrass had already become well-known for his use of hand-held cameras to convey the clangour and impact of action scenes, and applies this verité technique (or philosophy) with great success in The Bourne Supremacy to convey a sense of urban reality to even the most plot-congested moments that dog Bourne's pilgrimage. At moments the screen coruscates with shaky-cam eye-kicks and eye-candy, with extremely short incompletely framed shots conveyed through graffiti-like gouache swipes and gobs of colour, like some painting by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) come to life. Some sequences in the film, and in The Bourne Ultimatum below, vividly resemble visually some passages from Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (also 2002), which is more a marker of shared attitudes towards camera techniques: an innovative development in the use of hand-held cameras and other verité effects very telling here and in Boyle's film, but destined soon to become a look. The dying fall of the film's final moments is visually acute, and conveys a political message.

3. The Bourne Ultimatum Film (2007). Universal Pictures/BETA Produktionsgesellschaft/The Kennedy/Marshall Company. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Scott C Burn, Tony Gilroy and George Nolfi, based on The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) by Robert Ludlum. Cast includes Joan Allen, Matt Damon, Albert Finney, Julia Stiles and David Stratham. 115 minutes. Colour.

Though it is a film very much worth watching, for many of the reasons that make its immediate predecessor so memorable, there is nothing new in sf terms to comment on here: the CIA's ability to monitor electronic communications worldwide may have seemed science-fictional in 2007, but in fact was only sf-like. Intriguingly, the first half of the film takes place before the final shots of its predecessor, making adroit use of the self-referentiality potentials of film in general, and recomplicated action dramas like Bourne in particular. Like Berlin and Russia in the earlier film, New York when we finally "return" there is now rendered with gritty acuity, and an earlier parkour-based chase sequence in Tangier proves sufficiently dance-like to be watched as often as twice. Having discovered his true identity, Bourne must come to terms with the fact that as a young soldier he had volunteered to be transformed into a Cyborg warrior, without seeming to be aware that his deployment would be entirely covert, and his missions against the stated policies of the American government. In the course of The Bourne Ultimatum, the CIA is exposed and Bourne gains peace (in the midst of strife). His dive into the East River in a flood of bullets, and his immersion in the waters arms-wide as though crucified before he comes to life again and swims seawards, echo the beginning of the first film; and end the trilogy on a well-earned private note.

4. The Bourne Legacy Film (2012) Universal Pictures/Relativity Media/The Kennedy/Marshall Company. Directed by Tony Gilroy. Written by Dan Gilroy and Tony Gilroy, based on The Bourne Legacy (2004) by Eric Van Lustbader. Cast includes Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Edward Norton, Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz. 135 minutes. Colour.

Again, there is a layering of narrative sequences, giving a forgivable (if unexploited) sense that more is taking place than the filmmakers can tell. Enjoyably, though without any binding necessity, the entire action of 4 takes place between Bourne's born-again re-immersion in salt waters near the end of 3 above, and the glimpsed congressional hearings that seem to give closure to the first three films. The main reveal now is that Jason Bourne's (here unseen) exposure of the CIA's illegal activities has threatened to put a parallel project, the secret Operation Outcome, at risk. CIA Director (Glenn), who has also featured in 3, orders Byer (Norton) to supervise the elimination of all Operation Outcome special operatives, who (unlike Bourne) gain their superior strength and mental agility through the regular ingestion of green and blue pills. In the company of a similarly drugged-up operative, Aaron Cross (Renner) remarkably survives the CIA's elimination of the former with a drone, goes on the run, and soon learns from project scientist Marta Shearing (Weisz) that he has been Genetically Engineered, a process described in the film as "viralling off", so that he no longer needs the green physical-enhancement pill. But he still requires access to the blue pill, or he will lose his mental edge. They then fly to Manila, source of the blue pills, where Cross successfully undergoes a further viralling-off process, and becomes a big-brained medication-free Superman. Byer has meanwhile activated a "super" agent who chases Cross through Manila in an almost shot-for-shot reprise of the parkour sequence in 3. The super agent is killed. Cross and Shearing board a slow boat whose destination may be China.

The filming of The Bourne Legacy is highly competent. The actors are modest in their epigone roles. The languid Slingshot Ending promises more to come, in due course, though the release of 5 below, marking the return of Bourne himself, may have made any additions to this alternate continuation difficult to make.

5. Jason Bourne Film (2016). Captivate Credit/Double Negative/The Kennedy Marshall Company/Pearl Street Films/Perfect World Pictures. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, based remotely on The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) by Robert Ludlum. Cast includes Riz Ahmed, Vincent Cassel, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Vinzenz Kiefer, Scott Shepherd, Julia Stiles and Alicia Vikander. 123 minutes. Colour.

There can be no genuine reprise here of the inward-turning quest dynamic that governs the initial Bourne trilogy [see 1, 2 and 3 above], during the course of which Jason Bourne worms his way deeper into the heart of a CIA which has so traumatized him that he can remember nothing. "I remember," now whispers an unseen Bourne (Damon) in our ears sotto voce before the action of Jason Bourne actually begins. "I remember everything." That is to say he knows his name, which the CIA had taken from him. But the discovery that he is "really" David Webb, a young soldier who had volunteered for surgical and psychic transformation into the quasi-Cyborg assassin-machine Bourne, may not to have done him much good. After his seeming success in killing off all the CIA father-figures who had betrayed him and his mission to serve America, and after cleansing himself in the amniotic waters of the East River in the last shots of The Bourne Ultimatum, he has presumably gone to ground to enjoy being reborn; but ten years later, Bourne is now a reduced figure, significantly mute for the first twenty minutes into the film, seemingly locked into a state of estranged torpor, an accidic aimlessness that lacks even a spark of the transgressive. In the course of a film lasting over two hours, he utters in fact only 288 words in all.

Bourne is in Greece engaging in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches, which he wins with single blows, a bottom-feeder enterprise which seemingly so disgusts him that he vomits afterwards: vomit being perhaps a visceral analogue to moral anguish (or discourse). His old CIA colleague (and possible lover) Nicky Parsons (Stiles), who has clearly remained in contact with him over the years, visits an activist cell in Reykjavik run by Christian Dassault (Kiefer), where she hacks into the CIA mainframe Computer at Langley. While drawing down Infodump on the various covert programmes responsible for the creation of "Bourne" and other enhanced agents, including specific information about Bourne/Webb's dead father, she also gains access to a new (very post-Bourne) project known as Ironhand, Her hacking alerts Langley, too late for her to be captured, though alerting CIA Director Robert Dewey (Jones) and the ambitious Heather Lee (Vikander), head of cyber-ops, to Bourne's continued existence. They are soon at odds about how to handle him. Dewey (another ultimately doomed father-figure) wants Bourne taken down; Lee (a twenty-something ambitious to supplant him) wants to exploit his existential dilemma and bring him back into the fold: when he left CIA, she says, "he left behind his reason to exist."

Meanwhile, Nicky and Bourne meet at Syntagma Square in Athens, during the course of a sophisticatedly filmed anti-government protest, with much of the hand-held-camera rhetoric that made director Greengrass's capturing of Berlin in 2 so – in the end deceivingly – alert to the world: but suddenly, for the first time, the outside world enters Jason Bourne: and maybe this time round Greengrass means what he show us. Dewey has in the meantime called down yet another "Asset" (Cassel), a term used throughout the series to identify any of a seemingly unlimited supply of assassins subject to something like the same transformation Webb had suffered; but this Asset is rather more than a high-functioning Red Shirt for Bourne to eliminate (excepting 1 above, he seems only to kill his fellow killers), as the latest Asset has old personal issues with his target. Nicky gets the hacked data to Bourne just as the Asset shoots her from ambush, in a sequence that conspicuously reprises the assassination of Bourne's lover at the beginning of 2. In the course of getting into position to kill her, however, the Asset has murdered at least three innocent Greek nationals; it may (or may not) represent a Satirical comment on twenty-first century Realpolitik that, in contrast to worries in the main trilogy about the effect of collateral damage against citizens of countries ostensibly allied to America, nobody in the CIA seems bothered this time around by these violations of laws and protocols that might have been valid in the previous century.

A concatenation of setpieces now begins, with swathes of back-story turning out to be searchable, via computer, whenever needed. Dewey's attempts to bring Bourne/Webb down fail, as they must. Lee establishes an exceedingly guarded détente with Webb/Bourne, whose distress intensifies after he learns his own father had created the original Treadstone programme that turned him and others into "assets", and that Dad, anguished by a bad conscience, had gained a promise from the CIA not to enroll his son. But a younger Dewey had arranged to have Richard assassinated in plain view by an Arab terrorist (actually the Athens Asset, also visibly younger, in disguise), in order to activate David's patriotism, and inspiring him to volunteer for the programme: which means he did not "volunteer" to become Bourne of his own free will (this of course annuls the emotional climax of 3). At one blow this backstory sequence not only renders irrelevant Bourne's decade of presumed self-redemption and attempted closure, but makes it clear that his "profound" love for his country had been exploited in order to transform him into a monstrosity.

Bourne says nothing.

In a new plot strand, Aaron Kalloor (Ahmed), billionaire founder and CEO of the Facebook-like Deep Dream Corporation, a social media firm with over a billion users (see Media Landscape), tells Dewey he has grown disenchanted with the CIA and plans to cease his collaboration in the development of Ironhand, which turns out to be a CIA/Deep Dream operating system designed to maintain secret "full spectrum surveillance [of the entire human race], watching everyone all the time," while somehow maintaining (or so we are meant to believe Kalloor has assumed) absolute individual privacy. Rather late in the game [the makers of Jason Bourne have clearly attempted to present Kalloor as a naively liberal Babe in the Woods, unlike the savvy, powerful, knowledgable Media Landscape entrepreneurs upon whom he has very clearly been based], Kalloor announces his plans to blow the gaff in an address he will be making, with Dewey sharing the podium, at an egregious bling-choked Las Vegas convention centre. Dewey instructs the Asset to kill Kalloor at a key moment of the speech, showing the same indifference to the fact that the CIA is prohibited from operating within America as he had previously evinced at the murder of (one guesses he must assume) disposable foreigners in their homes. But Bourne momentarily blinds the Asset with a spotlight, and the assassination fails. Kalloor is wounded just after he confesses on stage that Deep Dream's huge success has come "at a cost. There is a cancer at the heart of Deep Dream, a guilty secret, and I have to share it with you guys."

Bourne tracks Dewey to his hotel suite, followed by Lee, who shoots Dewey before he can shoot Bourne, who covers up for her. He then traps the Asset – after a massively expensive second-unit car chase, including the now mandatory high-speed pornotopic high-speed bumper-car pursuit against traffic (see Clichés), which in the real world would have murdered dozens – and kills him. In the epilogue, Lee tells the Director of National Intelligence in Washington she wants to become Director of CIA as a reward if she brings Bourne onside, which she promises either to do or to kill him for any continued disloyalty to America. Bourne has bugged this conversation, but reveals nothing. "I know you've always been a patriot," she tells him, an iteration whose effect on a worldwide audience may vary according to location. "We need you to help protect us." Bourne says he'll think it over (in Jason Bourne this almost seems loquacious) and walks away. The camera lifts and in the near distance the Washington Monument is visible under a sky that might seem to be lowering.

It is known from interviews that Matt Damon was unwilling to film a simple reprise of the main Bourne trilogy. The makers of Jason Bourne therefore created a kind of double structure. The original pocket universe world of the first trilogy is reprised, with familiar scenes and action sequences all seemingly sealed off as before from any reality over and beyond the inherent family romance/quest tale at the heart of things; at the same time, the reborn protagonist of Jason Bourne must make an ethical decision – whether to "defend" America or to go to ground again – based on his perception of a world beyond the CIA.

What happens to the old world of the trilogy, as Jason Bourne proceeds, is what happens to a vampire in sunlight. The outside world had been avoided in previous Bourne films for some very good reasons, as their in-house psychodramatics were always likely to wither if exposed to the air. In the event, the double structuring of Jason Bourne does not work. Oneiric sequences where Assets murder civilians abroad, or the CIA utilizes one of its own agents in an attempt to assassinate an extremely famous American on stage in the middle of Las Vegas, or murderous car chases are mounted against traffic, only make tolerable viewing in an enclosed arena, from which there can be no leakage of consequences. But consequences are exactly what the new film must purport to take into consideration, or it is a nonsense. Sadly though, what Bourne sees is what he gets. What he see is exactly what (it is a film after all) the film shows him. If all he is allowed to see of America is Las Vegas (the Washington Monument is epilogue), then it is Las Vegas that must stand in for the America he is being asked to "defend." If being shot by the government in the heart of America is Kalloor's reward for speaking out, then the costs of speaking out (as the film makes perfectly clear) may be exceedingly high: which we must assume Bourne's impassive absorptive gaze must have clocked, even if he and Kalloor never actually meet, never engage in any open-to-the-sky deadly-to-security dialogue. If all Bourne can detect of just governance in the country he loves is false news and betrayals from Dewey and Lee, then Dewey and Lee are what just governance amounts to in the world he has been given to judge. Even in the absence of any reference to Inland Security or the Patriot Act, which together enable behaviour not dissimilar to theirs, Dewey and Lee are the voice of America. None of this is uttered aloud. Bourne says nothing. But the gaff is blown.

Jason Bourne is of particular interest in an sf context through its gimmicky use of fantastic elements – cyborged warriors, electronic surveillance just beyond what was feasible in 2016, Dystopian governance – essentially in an attempt to seal off any leakage of genuine message or prolepsis that the film might contain: if these elements of the tale are sf, runs the undertext of this profoundly self-censored vision of America, then we were just kidding. It is a displacement that radically contradicts any case-sensitive use of the tools of Fantastika to create recognitions of possible things to come; an attempt to close the world not expose it. Jason Bourne is therefore uncivilized. But the sewn lips of its makers fail to silence the film made. Bourne may say nothing but the gaff is blown. [JC]


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