by John S
With the recent release of Jason Bourne on home video, now’s the perfect time not only to review the angst-ridden, memory-challenged CIA assassin’s latest thrill ride, but also to take a stroll down cinematic memory lane and explore the genesis of the Bourne franchise, which has had a significant impact on the Action, Thriller, and Spy genres and some of their franchises. Not to mention sales of Dramamine (Heeeeeello, Shaky Cam).
Let’s travel back in time to 2002, when a little movie called The Bourne Identity is about to be released. Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne, an amnesiac assassin who must race across Europe to uncover his past while dodging his employers at the CIA who aren’t exactly thrilled about this, um, malfunctioning piece of government equipment. It goes without saying they want him contained, ASAP. Throw in a pretty but downtrodden German national (Franka Potente) who aids Bourne in exchange for $10,000 (sign. me. up.) and you’ve got what sounds like your basic spy action/thriller. But is it?
No one is really expecting The Bourne Identity to set the U.S. on fire. However, critics and audiences love its bracingly kinetic, no-nonsense style. Its opening weekend take pulls in about $27 million (about $40 million today), which is impressive considering Damon hasn’t had a hit with him as the lead since 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Sure, he was in Ocean’s Eleven from a year before in 2001, but he was part of an ensemble group there. Identity eventually tops out domestically at around $121 million (about $180 million today). Globally, it nets about $214 million (around $300 million today). Not bad at all for a flick that no one really had high expectations for to begin with. You don’t have to be Yoda to figure out there’s going to be a sequel.
Meanwhile, later in 2002, Die Another Day, the 20th James Bond flick, opens and does good business. That is, for a movie that has an invisible car, an Asian man who turns into a White Dude, an Ice Palace where no one freezes to death, Madonna as a fencing instructor, and a laughably-awful CGI image of Pierce Brosnan escaping a tsunami from a melting glacier by paragliding on sheet metal. Or something. The Bond producers give a collective sigh of relief because, given all the horse-shit they tried to feed us (even for a Bond flick), they avoid a major box-office bullet. However, they know us Bond fans have long memories and will not fall for their crap again. Screw us once, shame on you. Screw us twice, shame on us. And so the plans for a Bond retooling begin. And the PlayStation crowd sure seems to like that Bourne dude. Hmmmmmmm.
Flash forward to 2004, the much-anticipated sequel to The Bourne Identity comes out. While the first film was gritty and smart and well-made, it was also, in the end, a popcorn flick. The Bourne Supremacy, on the other hand, goes into darker territory. Let’s just say a major character goes bye-bye barely fifteen minutes in, and it just gets more somber from there, leading to a surprisingly poignant conclusion that is not focused on explosions but…an apology. Anyway, Bourne (Damon again) finds himself the prime suspect in a CIA op that goes messily south, and the steely Agency lead named Pamela Landy (an awesome Joan Allen) wants his ass. Not literally, mind you. At least, not that I could tell. Something interesting happens, though, when Pam slowly starts to believe Bourne had nothing to do with the debacle, and the true baddies may be in her own chain of command. Welcome to the Jungle, sweetie. The game of cat and mouse becomes even more complicated as more and more flashbacks of Bourne’s mysterious first op in Berlin come back to haunt him. Think of this one as The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight of the Bourne Franchise.
Supremacy ends up a bigger hit than Identity in the U.S., raking in nearly twice the latter’s opening weekend take, and netting $50 million more than its final domestic gross. It appears this New Kid On The Block called Jason Bourne is a force to be reckoned with that’s casting a shadow across other films and franchises. This is no more evident than when, in 2005, the folks behind the James Bond movies announce they will reboot their franchise and take it back to its meaner, grittier, Fleming-esque roots. They go on to buck the standard Bond template of “Tall, Dark, & Classically Handsome” by casting Daniel Craig, who is best described as “Average Height, Sandy, & Construction Worker Cute.” Much like a certain guy named Matt Damon. Coincidence? Sure. And Judi Dench was on the short list for Basic Instinct before Sharon Stone stole the role from under her.
Casino Royale opens in late 2006 and kicks major critical and commercial ass. Much as with The Bourne Identity, audiences and critics embrace this not necessarily leaner, but definitely meaner interpretation of a Secret Agent. This is not your Dad’s or even your older brother’s James Bond. Everyone starts genuflecting at the Altar of Craig, who is admittedly effective and dynamic, but often brings to mind a Brit Bourne or a Blonde Dalton. Casino Royale opens at $40 mil (about $53 mil today) and goes on to gross $167 million ($218 million today) in North America. It does even better overseas, approaching $566 million in 2006 dollars. More importantly, it is hailed as a modern classic. Nevertheless, it’s hard to pretend we would have been blessed with one of the best Bond films ever even if Jason Bourne hadn’t blazed onto the scene. We probably would have gotten Die Another Day 2. Or Moonraker Returns. Shudder.
The following year brings us The Bourne Ultimatum, the capper to the Bourne Trilogy that everyone who isn’t living under a rock in the U.S. has been waiting for. It nabs one of the biggest opening weekend takes of 2007, pulling in $69 million ($86 million today). Most folks who love the Bourne flicks love this one the most – and there’s a lot to love here. The wonderful Joan Allen is back as Pam Landy who continues to rally fearlessly behind Bourne. Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who was intriguingly set up as a major player in Supremacy only to be abruptly dropped in the second half, is back in a fuller showcase and has a more pivotal arc. Most importantly, Bourne finally reaches the end of the proverbial bread crumb trail leading back to where all his problems began. That final image of Bourne floating lifelessly underwater, mirroring and bookending the first image of him way back in Identity, only to kick back to life to the sting of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” (the Bourne Theme) and swim off to an uncertain future, is pure genius. It’s an extremely satisfying wrap-up to a stellar trilogy.
Personally, Supremacy is my favorite of the original three because of its darker tone and surprisingly atypical denouement, which revolves around Bourne atoning for his sins to the surviving daughter of one of his victims. This element reminds us that all those seemingly irrelevant casualties leave behind actual collateral damage. Pretty profound stuff for an action/thriller. However, all three Bourne flicks are excellent in their own ways. Anyway, at this point most folks consider Jason Bourne’s story told and finished. For now, at least. This is Hollywood, after all, and the Ghost of Sequels to Come is a formidable one.
The period of 2008 to 2011 is basically a Bourne-free zone at the movies. Not that other franchises don’t try to fill the void, mind you. 2008’s Quantum of Solace, the much-anticipated follow-up to Casino Royale, is even more Bourne-like than its predecessor. Not surprising, since director Marc Forster is reportedly not a fan of the Bond movies and is more keen on the Bourne flicks. Solace is actually quite effective and unconventional in a good way; however, despite opening about $27 million more than Royale, Solace ultimately grosses only $1 million more during its entire run. Really, with that huge opening, it should be the first Bond movie to cross $200 million at the North American box office. Evidently, Bond fans don’t want their 007 to be too much like Bourne.
Another contender to fill the Bourne void is the surprisingly successful Taken series. Imagine if Jason Bourne retired from the CIA, got married, had a teenage daughter, and found out she was abducted by a white slavery ring. Yup, that’s pretty much how that particular pitch probably went. Nevertheless, the flick and its sequels give Liam Neeson a nice, viable franchise. Then there’s the early 2012 entry Haywire, from Steven Soderbergh of all people. Imagine if Jason Bourne got a sex change operation and became a butch but pretty chick. That’s basically the pitch for this one. While entertaining, it doesn’t quite hit the mark despite giving MMA champion Gina Carano a strong showcase.
2012 suddenly proves to be a pivotal year for the Bourne franchise. While talk of another sequel following Ultimatum has been floating around for awhile, little of it is focused on having a protagonist other than Bourne. Enter The Bourne Legacy, which is an expansion of the Bourne universe featuring another agent-with-issues. This time, it’s Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) who finds himself on the run when the Bourne kerfuffle (Legacy runs concurrently with the events of Ultimatum) forces his employers to wipe the entire program. This includes support staff like Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who survives the Agency-sanctioned massacre of her lab. She goes on the lam with Cross and we basically have the events of Identity (mixed with the Bond flick Goldeneye) all over again. Fortunately, director Tony Gilroy (who penned all three previous Bourne flicks and this one) has a deft command of action and suspense. Locating a lot of the fireworks in Manila, Philippines also provides a fresh backdrop. Barring a rather abrupt ending, Legacy is actually pretty good. However, it grosses “only” $113 million ($125 today), the lowest total North American take in the franchise so far. A planned sequel with Cross now seems iffy. It’s looking like the next flick will have Bourne as its star again. Shame, because Cross is actually a more fun and engaging presence than Bourne. But, whatever.
2012 also brings us Skyfall, the next Bond flick and the one that not only finally breaks the hallowed $200 million barrier for the franchise, but also the $300 million threshold. Quite a double-feat. Internationally, it grosses over a billion dollars. Interestingly, Skyfall actually eschews most of the Bourne-like tactics of Quantum of Solace and embraces the Bond franchise’s tropes a little more. Further cachet is endowed upon the flick (and the series, by default) when Adele is nominated for and wins Best Original Song at the Academy Awards that year. Suddenly, James Bond is classy, not campy.
Unfortunately, Skyfall‘s follow-up three years later in 2015 is the divisive Spectre, which dives a little too deep into the Bond Drawer ‘O Tricks this time and gives us some rather questionable plot elements that wouldn’t be out of place in an Austin Powers movie. Maybe a little Bourne would have helped this one. Spectre‘s box office is impacted accordingly: it struggles to reach $200 million in North America, a real come-down from Skyfall‘s take of $304 million. In contrast to the stellar reception of Skyfall, its follow-up is a bit of a misfire. The Bond franchise now finds itself at a crossroads: continue down the rather dodgy path Spectre has set – or scrap the whole thing and hit the reset button again.
That brings us to Summer 2016, when Jason Bourne is finally released. Some say this is the movie that should’ve been released back in 2012 instead of Legacy. Here’s the brutal truth: I actually like The Bourne Legacy more than Jason Bourne. Bourne’s latest adventure is technically okay and enjoyable. However, there isn’t much we haven’t seen before. We get another room full of CIA techs typing furiously as they track Bourne across the globe. We get another Crusty Senior CIA White Male in Tommy Lee Jones, with little to differentiate him, personality-wise, from Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Straithairn, and Edward Norton before him. And grainy flashbacks. Dear Lord, we get even more grainy flashbacks.
The only somewhat novel element is in how Alicia Vikander’s role is handled. At first glance, she appears to be filling the requisite Loyal Female Ally slot that Franka Potente, Joan Allen, and Julia Stiles filled so wonderfully previously. However, Vikander’s Heather Lee, a rising star within the CIA, is cut from a different shade of cloth. Heather is much more enigmatic than Marie, Pam, and Nicky before her, all of whom were fairly transparent. She clearly has her own agenda and even Bourne knows it – but she’s the only one who can help him. Vikander is solid in the role and brings the same cool poise and quiet watchfulness that marked her star-making turn in Ex Machina.
Unfortunately, it’s also this mysterious, unreadable quality about Heather and the ultimate reveal of her true, ruthless intentions that basically end Jason Bourne on a somewhat sour and disappointing note. All four previous Bourne flicks concluded on a positive, hopeful tone which has become a trademark of the series that keeps us eager for more. This one fades out rather cynically in a way that doesn’t exactly make us look forward to the next one. Jason Bourne‘s domestic box office kind of reflects this: after a good opening weekend take of $59 million, it ultimately tops out at $162 million. Not bad, but not exactly befitting Bourne’s Big Comeback, either. Globally, it finishes second in the series behind Ultimatum.
I’m a die-hard fan of both Bond and Bourne and will always watch their movies, regardless of quality—like a too-loyal friend who sometimes should know better. However, both franchises are currently at a point where their next steps will impact their future. Their respective latest entries have been solid, maybe even good, but definitely not great. Their next installments need to rise above and beyond their predecessors. The billion-dollar question is: how do we make that happen? How do we pump fresh blood into both series?
Easy. Do the following: (A) Reboot both franchises. (B) cast Theo James as both Bond and Bourne. (C) Feel the temperatures rise in the theaters. Then (D) watch the screens fog up with so much steam you’ll barely be able to see the damn movie.
(Box-office data courtesy of boxofficemojo.com)
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.