People who watched the most recent Super Bowl were treated to something they hadn’t seen in nine years. It was a trailer just like any other there to sell itself to the willing American masses. Between the frantic but generic cuts in the brief clip, “You know his name,” is plastered across the screen. “My God,” someone says in the trailer, “that’s Jason Bourne.” And, in fact, yes, it was literally Jason Bourne, the fifth installment of the influential and popular action movie franchise. This time star Matt Damon returns in the title role for the first time since 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum. (The Damon-less 2012 hiccup, The Bourne Legacy, starred Jeremy Renner.) Damon and Bourne are back, but hopefully for only one more go-round, because this is getting ridiculous. For the franchise to survive, Bourne’s character needs to die.
The influence of the Bourne series on modern action films is inescapable, and it goes beyond just the shaky-cam aesthetic. What made the Bourne movies so significant is the way they piggybacked on the iconography of the spy genre. Most importantly, the Bourne series rewrote the cliched James Bond template of an effortlessly suave playboy spy jet-setting across the globe to always get the girl and end the movie unscathed. There have been innumerable gritty contrasts to the Bond mold over the years, but Bourne excelled because it seemed surpassingly real. It was of-the-moment, somehow essential.
Once Bond was rebooted following the human rights violation that was Die Another Day, its makers made sure Casino Royale pivoted toward a less campy, more authentic approach. Bond’s actions now had consequences that could carry over to subsequent movies, and his decisions would permanently follow him as a character. This kind of bold declaration that Bond was a new, imperfect, haunted man was basically lifted wholesale from the first two Bourne movies.
With Bourne there was no CGI, no gadgets, no bullshit. That’s what separated it and made it into a significant touchstone in modern action cinema. And the series needs to separate itself again in Jason Bourne.
Damon skipped the fourth installment of the series because he knew the main story arc — Bourne, relentless, using his special ops training to scour the world for clues to his murky past — was wrapped at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum. Damon, a storyteller in his own right, knows that when a story is done you don’t keep yammering. He admitted as much when the third movie was released.
“The story of this guy’s search for his identity is over, because he’s got all the answers, so there’s no way we can trot out the same character,” Damon told Collider in 2007. “So much of what makes him interesting is that internal struggle that was happening for him.” But Damon also admitted in the same interview: “If [director] Paul Greengrass calls me in 10 years and says, ‘Now we can do it, because it’s been 10 years and I have a way to bring him back,’ then there’s a world in which I can go, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’”
Though the filmmakers of Damon-less installment of The Bourne Legacy tried their best, they knew the series thrived with Damon as the nucleus. Renner, for all his strengths, couldn’t match Damon’s performance. When Legacy director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy explained his thinking to Empire in 2010, he seemed to be reaching: “I’m building a legend and an environment and a wider conspiracy. We’re going to show you the bigger picture, the bigger canvas.” That’s noble enough but it also reeks of franchise opportunism. Renner’s hiring felt more like, Oh shit, our star is gone, what do we do now?
And when he said, “The world we’re making enhances and advances and invites Jason Bourne’s reappearance somewhere down the road …” it kind of backfired and got fans excited to just see Jason Bourne again instead of Renner’s ersatz version.
Now that years are basically up, and both Damon and Greengrass are on board for the new Bourne movie, the stakes are high. To make it as significant as their previous installments only one thing has to happen: Jason Bourne needs to be kaputt.
This flies in the face of what makes the movie industry into a business instead of just a bunch of rich purveyors of fine art because, obviously, the plan is to keep making movies as long as action fans will buy tickets. It’s something that producer Frank Marshall managed to do with Jurassic World, and he’s obviously trying to do it again with Bourne. But it needs to happen for the sake of the reputation of the series in a post-Bourne Legacy context.
If Bourne doesn’t die this time around, he’s just another superhero. He’d be another redundant action totem that will continue down a path of obsolescence, which is exactly what made Bourne important in the first place. The main plot of the upcoming movie is still being kept under wraps (it doesn’t open till July 29), but if his character does die, the series’ crucial themes of violence and systemic psychological abuse will be that much more notable. It doesn’t take a dejected former super-spy to figure that out.