Oblivious Espionage: A Look Back at Bourne

Author’s note: written before the release of, and before seeing Jason Bourne (2016)

With Bourne about to be reborn on the big screen after having gone deep cover for ten years, I thought it might be worth talking about what makes the series so enjoyable despite its heavy reliance on an established formula that it put forward with The Bourne Identity back in 2002. I won’t be talking about Legacy, as I haven’t seen it, and in many ways I think the symbolism of the series is wrapped up with the character of Bourne himself.

Things that I expect to see in Jason Bourne:


Embryonic Water Imagery

The only thing that drives home themes of unformed identity more than literally naming your character “born” is having him constantly float around in a metaphoric liquid womb. Identity starts this way, Ultimatum ends this way, and underwater filming is showcased in Supremacy and sprinkled throughout various other moments of the series. It’ll be interesting to see how Jason Bourne extrapolates on this, considering this imagery of amorphous undefined identity was somewhat brooding and foreboding in the first film, but by the end of the series it almost seems to represent Bourne’s confidence in shaping his own personhood free from the fascism of the corrupt CIA rank and file. Maybe they’ll just keeping milking it, since it seems to fit the character and series prolific presentation of the fact that there’s not much of an answer to the question of “who am I?” for Bourne or for us.


Half the film is Bourne speedwalking/running/driving through crowded areas while the other half are overconfident CIA officials talking sternly in a briefing room

By the time Ultimatum came around it was almost hilarious that the very CIA operatives who knew about and commissioned Treadstone still treated Bourne like he was a Spykid. But, the two sided narrative at least provides the interesting ability for the film to gravitate between portraying Bourne as the quiet, introspected, and confused guy that garners our sympathies and portraying him as the almost horror movie rogue element. It also provides the opportunity for Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy to be a right badass and assure us that they’re not all bad on the inside, offering a neatly wrapped external reflection of Bourne’s inner psyche.


A freewheeling car chase where traffic is both a hindrance and an advantage/a lightning quick ounce of choreographed improvisational action

Sometimes it’s a pen, sometimes it’s a magazine, sometimes it’s a book. No matter what it is, the question is always when Bourne will make you question what should and shouldn’t be allowed onto airplanes on a deeper level. While it’s true that this (as well as 4 tonne vehicles squeezing through traffic and obstacles before maybe kick flipping and grinding a rail or something) has become something that the series is known for, it’s just a little unfortunate that you can see each of the three set-pieces coming no matter what order the filmmakers decide to put them in. This more than anything else makes Bourne films feel samey. However, despite the mixing and matching of these established portions, the action in Bourne is always grounded. It’s not showy or bombastic, and the pleasure in watching it comes from the subtlety granted by knowing that all these movements are being performed by a character who knows that this is the most meticulously effective and precisely efficient thing to do.

Sometimes I’m bewildered by the fact that the Bourne films are so entertaining. Despite all the backroom dealings, amnesia, conspiracy, secret CIA projects, and globe spanning chases, they’re really films with a very point A to B plot starring a character who, while likable, does sometimes seem like he has the personality of a very tactical set of blue drapes. They’re exceptionally predictable. But really, that’s probably the point. The structure of Bourne movies invites you into the position of the titular character. Bourne is what would happen if Sherlock Holmes were an American secret agent, with a slight twist. He enters a room and analyzes every detail. He knows what’s going to happen, rather than how it happened. And so do we. We see the creative car chase, the improvised fight sequence, the cuts to the briefing room, as the prime objects in the room that we know will be used and, if given enough time, we can know when and how too. As I watch these films, I am Jason Bourne. Whoever that is.

However, with Jason Bourne, Greengrass and Damon will do away with one key to the formula: the crutch of amnesia will be gone. Despite all the thematic good it does that is undeniably what Bourne’s lack of memory became. But with the promise of everything that was good about the series, at it’s core a character driven romp from sequence to sequence, this proves more hopeful than discouraging. For the first three films, Bourne has been in the same room and using the same crutch in creative ways to fend off his enemies. With Jason Bourne, he’ll put that weapon down and enter a new room. Imagine the potential of whatever he, and the writers, will pick up.


Works Cited:

The Bourne Identity. Dir. Doug Liman. Perf. Matt Damon. Universal Pictures, 2003. Digital Rental.
The Bourne Supremacy. Dir. Paul Greengrass. Prod. Frank Marshall. By Tony Gilroy and Robert Ludlum. Perf. Matt Damon, Franka Potente, and Brian Cox. Universal Pictures, 2004. Digital Rental.
The Bourne Ultimatum. Dir. Paul Greengrass. Perf. Matt Damon. Universal Studios, 2007. Digital Rental.

Image Citations:

Bourne Supremacy newspaper fight scene. Digital image. Maelstromcore. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Aug. 2016. <http://maelstromcore.com/sandbox/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/bourne-supremacy-knife-fight.jpg&gt;.
Jason Bourne’s passport. Digital image. Halifaxbloggers. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Aug. 2016. <http://halifaxbloggers.ca/flawintheiris/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2016/08/jason-bourne-passport-photo.jpg&gt;.
Joan Allen as Pamela Landy. Digital image. Theiapolis. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Aug. 2016. <http://media.theiapolis.com/d4/hMO/i1MEL/k4/l1MRC/w1HC/joan-allen-as-pam-landy-in-the-bourne-legacy.jpg&gt;.

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