From the start, the question has always been, “Who is Jason Bourne?” With the new Jason Bourne film, the fifth in the series and featuring a returning Matt Damon after he wasn’t in 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, it’s a question that should be asked more than ever. It opened last weekend and quickly became the nation’s top-grossing movie, so everyone’s talking about it.
Back in 2002’s original The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman from a script written by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron based on Robert Ludlum’s bestselling thriller, that question drove an amnesiac who was riddled with bullet holes and literally fished out of the water to discover that he, in fact, was Jason Bourne, an elite assassin borne in a top-secret CIA covert-ops program.
While attempting to piece together his fragmented psyche, Bourne adjusted to instinctual bursts of lethal muscle memory, reactions that time and again saved his life as he found himself under pursuit by the spy agency, which assumed he had gone rogue.
Damon turned out to be an inspired choice — he always seemed to be an everyman performer, more actor than movie star. Here, he was capable of convincing audiences that he was processing a host of situational variables instantaneously before his explosive reactions. He also radiated an almost Zen-like calm in the quieter beats with his co-star Franka Potente who, as a rootless bystander, gets caught up in the massive manhunt for Bourne.
And so, a franchise was born. With a marketable star and a trilogy of novels forming the narrative foundation, the character offered a stark and relentless counterpoint to the excesses of James Bond. Bond was the spy we loved, despite the parade of faces that had stepped in and out of the role, in a series of dated and ever-more cartoonish movies. In the estimation of critics and even some faithful fans, that iconic brand had come unmoored, especially in light of the new and sleekly improved Bourne model.
The addition of director Paul Greengrass, the helmer of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, the next two installments in the ongoing saga, further bolstered this notion. Greengrass brought a frenetic visual stamp on the action, complete with shaky handheld camera work and staccato editing, which mimicked the razor-sharp shorthand of the minds of trained professional killers and the handlers seeking to keep track of them.
The Ludlum estate wisely assessed the situation and enlisted Eric Van Lustbader to extend the literary life of Bourne. In the books, Bourne is an alias created by the CIA, a mythic figure to spook players in the espionage game.
Along the way, an operative named David Webb also assumes the identity, which over time becomes more of an actual split personality that takes over in times of stress or duress. The books explore this constant give and take between Webb and Bourne, the latter the killer forever lurking in the shadows.
In some ways, it would have been fascinating to watch Damon engage in this internal struggle. While he has expertly navigated the action heroics as presented onscreen thus far, imagine adding the psychological layers of the Webb-Bourne dynamic, which could have allowed him to venture into The Talented Mr. Ripley territory again.
Instead, the film franchise jumped the track in the Bourne-free iteration, The Bourne Legacy, which focused on an agent, played by Jeremy Renner, from a parallel covert project. Now it has rebounded somewhat with Jason Bourne.
These movies have painted themselves into a corner though. Bourne, the character, knows exactly who he is and how he became the force that he is. So what’s left for him? And for that matter, what about Damon, who is probably not going to want to gear up to play this coiled spring of a character forever?
Maybe it’s time for a new Bourne, one more in line with the Ludlum-Van Lustbader mold (a combined 13 books thus far). Jason Bourne, even moreso than James Bond, can be anyone, so why not take a page from his narrative exploits and use his history to transform him, with a bold new face and a new-old identity?