Yes. Better than Star Wars. Better than The Godfather. But not because the individual films of the Bourne trilogy are better than the individual Star Wars or Godfather installments, because they aren’t – The Godfather or The Empire Strikes Back trumps any one of the three Bourne films, easily.
No, the brilliance and quality of the Bourne trilogy comes not from the individual films, but from the way they work as a cohesive trilogy: without any one of the films, the entire trilogy collapses. Unlike other trilogies that simply involve multiple, barely-connected adventures with the same characters, the Bourne trilogy tells one long, cohesive story following one character and how he changes over time.
Quite simply, the Bourne trilogy is one of the tightest and most intimate film trilogies ever made. To prove it, I’ll be analyzing many different aspects of the trilogy as a whole, and how/if they change over the course of the three films.
The Bourne films may well be the classiest action films ever made, thanks largely in part to the cast: what other series would cast Julia Stiles in a secondary—no, make that tertiary role? Would cast Joan Allen, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Brian Cox as government baddies? Would cast Clive Owen as a badass hitman, but not give him any dialogue until his death scene? Franka Potente as Bourne’s partner in crime?
And, of course, what other series would hire a tremendously gifted dramatic actor like Matt Damon and make him play a superspy?
It’s rare that every character in a film is actually fun to watch, but the Bourne films pull it off: the villains, instead of acting as two-dimensional foils for the protagonist, have their own agendas and are immensely interesting in their own right. Thanks to performers like Cox, Cooper, Allen, and Strathairn, the scenes involving the CIA aren’t just filler in between the action bits – they’re legitimately compelling scenes in their own right. Name one other action series that can say that.
The main reason the trilogy works so well is because within each film, we see a different part of Bourne because the individual plots, for whatever reason, force him to react to his surroundings in a different way. In the first film, he struggles to find out who he used to be and effectively escapes the consequences of that life. In the second film, he is forced to confront the enormity and the brutality of what he did while under the employ of Treadstone. In the third film, he has to right Treadstone’s wrongs, face the fact that he actually volunteered for the program (though this could have been handled better in the end product – in the flashbacks, you can hear Bourne say “thank you, sir” way too soon which immediately tells the audience his employment was voluntary), and truly free himself from the Bourne identity.
While Bourne’s framing in Supremacy was a slightly contrived method of getting Bourne back to the game, the plots of the other two films represent a completely natural evolution of story and character, as the audience sees how deep Treadstone goes and how far Bourne is willing to go to achieve his goals.
In Identity, the age-old amnesia device is used to great effect as we find out about Bourne’s powers and training at the exact same rate he does, and we get to see him react in much the same way we do. One of the film’s best scenes takes place at the beginning, when Bourne, sleeping on a public bench, is woken up by two German police officers. After they repeatedly ask him to show his identification (in German), Bourne slowly begins to reply in English, then in German. When he does, Matt Damon does a fantastically subtle bit of acting: without saying anything or drawing a particular amount of attention to himself, he suddenly looks surprised that he knows German. Granted, he looks even more surprised when he instinctively and un-subtly kicks the tar out of the two cops, but the point stands. Identity allows the audience to care for Bourne, and gives Bourne a short-term happy ending (ostensibly filmed in case the film didn’t make enough money to warrant a sequel): having found a love in his life, Bourne now has the ability to let the past be the past. The fact that he doesn’t quite remember everything is, for the moment, irrelevant.
As a character, Bourne is a true rarity: as the series progresses, he goes from innocent, to heroic, to potentially-villanous, to terrifying, back to heroic again. Any good story that builds off the Joseph Campbell hero quest requires its protagonist to descend into darkness. And though Supremacy is by far the worst installment of the series, it gives us that necessary descent: in the scene where he corners Nicky (Julia Stiles) and holds a gun to her head while demanding information, the audience is legitimately frightened of him: yeah, he’s the good guy, but is he capable of murder? When the sole person who helped Bourne leave his murderous past behind is killed, how does Bourne react? Does he go on a kill-crazy revenge spree? Is he the kind of man who would kill Nicky just to send a message to his pursuers? As it turns out, he isn’t (Bourne is not Jack Bauer, and with good reason), but I have yet to see another character who simultaneously inspires excitement, sympathy, and fear from the audience. Interestingly, the very final scene (in terms of the film’s actual chronology, anyway – the very last scene actually takes place six weeks after the second-to-last scene and is repeated in the middle of Ultimatum) is one of extreme intensity, but includes no action or violence whatsoever. Instead, we get to see Bourne repent his actions, as he tells the daughter of his first two victims that he killed their parents. After all of the horrendous things Bourne goes through – after losing his memory, his love, and the life he had built for himself – he still refuses to become what the program wanted him to become. He is no longer a killer, and truly repents his actions.
By the time Ultimatum starts, Bourne is a confident, intelligent, uncompromising hero. After inadvertently avenging Marie’s death and exposing the man who tried to frame him, he decides to make things right by going to the beginning and finding out who conditioned him – partially because he can’t be free without knowing what happened to him, and partially because he wants to see those men brought to justice. One can tell the change in Bourne’s personality solely by the amount of dialogue he has: while he talked quite a bit in the first and second films, Bourne is all but silent for the vast majority of Ultimatum. Quite simply, he knows what needs to be done, and sees no reason to tiptoe around it in any way – and that includes unnecessary dialogue. In the first week of release, a rumor floated around that Bourne only said about 100 words in the film and while later proven untrue (by necessity, he probably says about three hundred words in the first chase alone), the rumor nonetheless highlights Bourne’s new, determined nature.
The parallels are only present in parts one and three, but with good reason: they mark the beginning and (hopefully) the end of Bourne’s journey. A few scenes are directly mirrored between Identity and Ultimatum, including:
-Bourne going to the morgue to find a corpse (representing omnipresent death)
-Bourne’s accomplice dying her hair (the cost Bourne’s life has on others, and the possibility that Nicky might die much as Marie did)
-Government assassins lying stiff and emotionless on a hotel bed, waiting for a call (not only is Treadstone back, but its assassins are just as robotic and conditioned)
-A car chase (admittedly, more of a series staple than a philosophical statement)
-Bourne refuses to shoot an injured assassin, post car-wreck
-Bourne floating in the water with a bullet wound (rebirth – the first time, Bourne lost his memory and was forced to become a new person. This time, Bourne has it all back and chooses to start a new life)
And, in what may be my new favorite line of film dialogue, the repetition of The Professor’s (Clive Owen) dying words: “Look at what they make you give.” As the Professor lies dying of a Bourne-inflicted shotgun wound in Identity, he is suddenly humanized: he complains of the headaches he gets due to Treadstone’s conditioning, and, after (sort of) answering Bourne’s questions about Treadstone, he looks down at the hole in his stomach, and laments, “Look at this. Look at what they make you give…” before slumping over, dead.
Bourne (and, assumedly, the audience) assume the line simply deals with the Professor’s sadness over dying – what he is “giving” is his life. And while this is indeed partially the case, its repetition in Ultimatum gives it a new, much more poignant meaning.
On the roof of the CIA building in New York, the Blackbriar assassin whom Bourne spared in the car chase finally catches up with him and holds him at gunpoint. The conversation they then have goes something like this:
“Why did you let me live, back at the car?”
“Do you even know why you’re supposed to kill me?”
(The assassin looks at Bourne, conflicted.)
“Look at what they make you give…”
And just like that, the line means infinitely more than it used to. Not only does it show that the true tragedy of being a Treadstone assassin isn’t just the possibility of dying, but the necessity of killing human beings whom you have never met, who may have done nothing wrong, but it also shows that Bourne actually learned something from the Professor: while the latter is dead, the two are now ironic, kindred spirits. The Professor realized his mistake far too late: Bourne caught on quicker, and chooses to teach the same message to this new Blackbriar assassin instead of killing him. It’s a subtle, effective, wonderfully poignant moment – by far, my favorite scene in the entire series.
Despite its tired plot devices (amnesia, government assassins, an innocent man on the run), the Bourne series has a gift for avoiding cliché. This is perhaps most obvious in the films’ action sequences, which, while suspenseful and exciting, never fall into recognizable, conventional scenes. While the series does have some bombastic action (the car chases have become a series trademark, and Bourne using a pen to kill a guy may be one of the series' defining moments), each film has had at least one scene that flies in the face of conventional action fare.
In Identity, the aforementioned showdown between Bourne and the Professor is quiet, somberly paced, and played out entirely without music. Rather than engaging in a simple gunfight with multiple rounds fired at one another, Bourne takes a shotgun, blows up a nearby propane tank for cover, and disappears into the underbrush where he knows the Professor is hiding. While the fight could have easily devolved into some sort of close-quarters combat at this point, the film plays it smart: Bourne fires a shell into the air, scaring the birds in the grass and confusing the hell out of the Professor. As the Professor is distracted by the noise coming at him from all sides, Bourne rushes him, shoots him twice, and the fight is over before the Professor even gets off a single shot.
While there are only two real action sequences in Supremacy, the one that isn’t the car chase remains pleasantly original. Bourne and another Treadstone agent engage in a quick hand-to-hand fight, but several things about it are just a little odd. Firstly, the Treadstone assassin is handcuffed for pretty much the entire fight. Secondly, there is no music and the camera gets brutally close to the subjects. Thirdly, Bourne ends up vanquishing his foe with the help of a magazine. That’s right, a goddamn magazine is somehow more painful to the Treadstone agent than Bourne’s exposed fist. Don’t ask me why. Still, the fact that Bourne kills him with the magazine and then sticks it into a toaster (after opening the gas line, of course) to blow the guy’s house up is nothing short of hilariously awesome.
In Ultimatum, the unconventional action scene takes place at the beginning of the film. As Bourne ingeniously communicates with a reporter who has information about Treadstone through a prepaid mobile phone, he calmly asks him to do seemingly-nonsensical things that end up confusing the surveillance team and keeping him out of the sight of security cameras. For instance, Bourne asks the reporter to go stand by a person in a hood and act like he’s being told something: as a result, once the reporter walks away from him, the CIA assumes that the random pedestrian the reporter approached was the reporter’s source and the poor bastard is immediately subdued and arrested. Once Bourne and the reporter actually meet up, the sequence could have easily turned into a balls-out foot chase – but again, the film plays it smart. Bourne walks (never runs) around the London station, calmly telling the reporter what to do. The fact that Bourne never raises his voice and never seems to get agitated gives the scene an incredibly unusual feel: it’s technically a chase, but it’s done in such a realistic and understated way that it feels totally new.
Though I have to admit: Ultimatum’s chase scene in Tangier is intensely problematic and provides one of the biggest plot holes of the series. When Bourne and Nicky head to Tangiers to stop the assassin Desh from killing a key character, Bourne’s plan doesn’t make any sense. He tells Nicky to contact Desh under the pretenses of giving him a new phone, so Bourne can follow him to his target. So far, so good – even though Bourne must know that the CIA would detect the unauthorized contact between Nicky and Desh and that they’d notice it when Desh deviated from his course, he could figure that a fair tradeoff for finding the location of Desh’s target (because, after all, it’s not like he has any other way of getting to him). However, the logic of the scene and Bourne’s character collapses when, in following Desh, he makes no attempt to hide himself, and is actually surprised when Desh knows he is there (the shot where Desh looks in his side-view mirror and sees Bourne less than ten feet behind him prompted some unintentional laughs from my friends and I). Why? Bourne should have known the CIA would contact Desh about the unauthorized contact and route deviation, and that as a result he would probably get more orders. Why Bourne didn’t cover his face, or even move a few hundred feet back, is totally illogical. The aforementioned “chase” scene at the beginning of the film informs the audience that Bourne is extremely intelligent and knows how the CIA works, and the Tangiers chase scene totally contradicts this solely for the purposes of adding a rip-roaring action sequence.
I have to wonder. When Doug Liman cast Julia Stiles as Nicky in The Bourne Identity, did he do so knowing that the character would come back in the sequels, or did they just make that up as they went along? I have not read the source material (and don’t plan on doing so, considering that the film seems to all but ignore it), so Nicky’s growth as a character is made very interesting.
Nicky never really talks, even when given the chance: while she gets a good thirty minutes of screen time in Ultimatum, she still (wisely) internalizes everything. In Identity and Supremacy this aspect of her character simply seemed to be a result of the fact that she was only in a few scenes, but it was refreshing to see that even when acting as the main female protagonist, she still remains consistent.
She’s also a pretty damned intelligent character: during the Tangiers chase, she wisely destroys her phone (without having to be told to do so by the male lead, as would be the case in a less intelligent action film), and when Bourne insists she run away on her own, she doesn’t protest – while she likes and pities Bourne, she knows what happens to people who stay around him.
I’ve read that many, many people have taken Nicky’s line in Ultimatum regarding why she chose to help Bourne (“It was hard for me…with you. You don’t remember anything, do you?) as a reference to some previous romantic relationship before Bourne lost his memory, and I have to address this directly. If this is true, it represents a major character inconsistency and pretty much answers the question of whether or not the creators knew what they were doing when they first introduced Nicky. Basically, when we see Nicky in Identity, she has no qualms whatsoever about the fact that her organization is attempting to kill Bourne and seems to have no feelings one way or the other about Bourne as a person. Had they engaged in some sort of romantic relationship beforehand during his training, wouldn’t she have felt pity? Or if their supposed romance was supposed to have taken place during the time he was David Webb, wouldn’t Treadstone have known about it and thus refused to make Nicky his handler?
For a while, I preferred to think that her line “it was difficult for me, with you” was in reference to hearing what he had to say in Supremacy when he told her that his girlfriend was killed by Treadstone. Surely, her sympathy for him would have started then, amplified by the fact that he chose to let her live. Yet this makes the line, “You don’t remember anything, do you” somewhat irrelevant: ostensibly, whatever was “difficult” for her must have taken place during or before his conditioning, which makes her blasé attitude toward his potential murder illogical.
I just try to ignore it.
Also – and this is just on a personal note – Julia Stiles seems to get exponentially cuter as the series progresses. She goes from kinda cute in Identity to pretty attractive in Supremacy, to downright adorable in Ultimatum. Just in case you needed one more reason to consider Ultimatum the best of the trilogy.
In many interviews, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass have said that Bourne is very much a character of his time: in an era where the majority of Americans believe the country is involved in a harmful and pointless war, the idea of a hero whose goal to free himself of the militaristic government (rather than defend it, as Jack Bauer and James Bond do), and to do it through generally nonviolent means (again, unlike Bauer and Bond) is pretty damned relevant.
And again, each installment of the series reveals more about Bourne’s supposed enemy, both literally and figuratively. In Identity (filmed prior to 9/11), we are told that Treadstone is merely a harmful offshoot of the CIA and though the “good guys” at the agency are capable of violence (Conklin, the main villain played by Chris Cooper, is cleverly killed not by Bourne but by an assassin sent by Brian Cox), the evil is assumedly restricted to just this subsection of the government. In Supremacy (2004 – post 9/11, at the start of Bush’s second term, when Americans were slightly more willing to discuss 9/11 and Iraq), we find that treachery is present in slightly more of the agency, as Abbott (Brian Cox) is revealed to be the traitor who sold out his government and framed Bourne. Again, the evil is restricted to a specific part of the government, but we see the spread of the corruption.
In Ultimatum, the film goes for full-blown criticism of the Bush administration: not only does Treadstone resurface as an offshoot of a terrorism surveillance operation (CIA official Noah Vosen refers to it as “cutting through the red tape”), but it is revealed that the goddamned director of the CIA is complicit in Treadstone’s re-emergence, as is his immediate underling, Vosen (David Straithairn). Still, the agenda of Ultimatum is not so liberal as to only blame the government for Treadstone’s problems: the major twist of the film (which, again, could have been handled much better) is that Bourne voluntarily joined Treadstone. Government is capable of evil, the film seems to say, but it is also the responsibility of each individual citizen not to be so blindly patriotic that you refuse to see logic. David Webb’s jingoism turns him into Jason Bourne and ruins his life: ideally, the average voter will learn from this mistake.
The Bourne Ultimatum as prequel/sequel
From a purely mechanical point of view, the structure of The Bourne Ultimatum is fantastic. Given the fact that most of the film technically takes place before the final scene of Supremacy, the latter two films of the trilogy feel like complements to one another rather than totally separate installments. The series is not complete without Ultimatum, from either a story or character point of view. Since the two overlap, then, Ultimatum feels like the final, necessary half of Supremacy.
I know that the structure confused some people (more than a few viewers thought that the final scene of Supremacy actually happened twice in the context of the story, and that its second appearance in Ultimatum was actually Bourne’s way of signaling something to Landy), but it still gave the film a sense of immediacy that would have been missing had Ultimatum started a long time after Bourne’s final words to Landy at the end of Supremacy.
Please, no more
While Matt Damon has assumedly sworn off the role of Jason Bourne for the rest of his days, Universal Pictures would, from a financial point of view, have to be complete idiots not to make another few Bourne films. Rumors have floated around that if the series is to continue, it would ostensibly do so with a different actor, thus making Bourne a passed-down character akin to James Bond. Even Paul Greengrass has admitted he’d do a fourth film if they found a decent enough reason to make one.
Quite frankly, I can’t think of a less dignified way to deal with the franchise. As I’ve hopefully shown, the Bourne trilogy succeeds thanks to its tight narrative structure, its wonderful story arc, and Matt Damon’s brilliant performance. Taking Jason Bourne and shoehorning him into more unnecessary, unrelated adventures without the presence of Matt Damon essentially tarnishes everything great about the films that preceded it. If Bourne is forced to come out of hiding, again, it defeats the purpose of his figurative baptism at the end of Ultimatum: Jason Bourne is dead, and David Webb can now live a new life, free of Treadstone’s meddling and his own murderous nature. Simply forcing the Bourne character into situations where he can kick ass and take names is disgraceful to the character-focused themes of the original trilogy, and would probably make the resulting sequels feel more like the worst bits of Supremacy.
So please, Universal. No more Bourne. Let this brilliant, complete trilogy rest as it is. It does not need another installment. The story is done. The character’s journey has ended. Let our last image of Jason Bourne be the final moments of Ultimatum, as Jason Bourne, now David Webb, disappears amidst the murky waters of New York. Whatever he does from that point on is his business, not ours.
I noticed something:
What is with our fascination of badasses with the initials "JB"?