What to Make of Bourne's Dwindling Body Count

Do action movies like ‘Jason Bourne’ actually need body counts? At all?

Last weekend, actor Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass returned to novelist Robert Ludlum’s action-packed intrigue-lousy world of Bourne with the new film plainly titled, Jason Bourne. In most of the media-promotion for the film, badass Bourne is brandishing a gun, but how many people has Bourne fictionally offed in these movies? More pressingly, could we be entering into a cinematic epoch where a movie character like Bourne doesn’t need to wrack up a body count? Could there ever be a Bourne-esque film in which no one is murdered? And if that sounds crazy consider this: it might be closer than you think.

When Robert Ludlam created his amnesiac superspy back in 1980 it seems unlikely he could have foreseen the character’s tenacious longevity. Not only did Bourne outlive Ludlam in successive novels penned by Eric Van Lusbater, he’s also been the star or subject of five feature-films, and one 1988 made-for TV mini-series.

Light spoilers for Jason Bourne ahead

Fittingly for a character with hazy memories, most of the Bourne films follow a similar set of renewable tropes, the most overwhelming one being that Jason Bourne is acting-alone against his corrupt, formerly puppeteering government officials. The latest installment is formulaically no different, but you generally don’t go to a movie like this for a highly original story. Instead, what set apart the first Damon Bourne film was its realistically rendered heart-pounding stunts and action scenes. Because he’s an assassin, it goes without saying that Bourne takes some people out.

And yet, in this latest installment, Jason Bourne – through his direct actions – only kills Vincent Cassell’s “asset” character. Which begs the question: in action/spy thrillers is the narrative threat of death more important than people actually being demonstratively murdered? We all remember those shoot-outs on the A-Team in which cartoonish gunfire was traded between Mr. T and some hillbillies with machine guns. Invariably, this would result in a draw.

Weaponry and gunplay are a kind of shorthand in storytelling, a leftover from the Western. Science fiction – of course – got around this a long time ago with blasters, phasers and other energy weapons that can “stun” instead of kill. But in order to get around a depiction of murder, “realistic” action stories have to be written a more tightly. Or, maybe it’s not even that hard?

In 1963, superspy James Bond leapt off the pages of Ian Fleming’s novels and onto the screen in Dr. No, Sean Connery’s portrayal of 007 aggressively laid a template for how action films were made and how spies killed. And yet, James Bond only kills four people directly in Dr. No, including, of course the titular evil negatory Doctor himself. Over the decades, Bond’s body count across his various cinematic incarnations only went alarmingly up, with Pierce Brosnan films being straight-up bloodbaths in terms of how many people we see Bond murder.

Still, somewhat classily, the Daniel Craig’s initial bond foray, saw a dip in how many people actually bit it. As Brosnan, Bond killed 31 people in 2002’s Die Another Day but as Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale he only kills 11. Sure, by 2015’s Spectre Bond was back to killing about 32 people per movie, but, he notably doesn’t shoot Blofeld in the film’s finale. And instead, throws his gun away. Fittingly, the number of murders Bond commits in the novels by Fleming are also lower than in the films. In the novel version of Moonraker, for example, Bond doesn’t even fire his gun.

In 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale’s Batman growls decisively at Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman: “NO GUNS! NO KILLING.” There’s a long history of Bats’s opposition to guns to unpack there, but with this year’s Batman V. Superman, Ben Affleck’s new Batman has no problem shooting a ton of people, even if some of it is in a future dream-sequence. Though this newer movie went out of its way to mention that a all the destroyed buildings were abandoned (Superman caused a lot of collateral damage in 2013’s Man of Steel) the murder-quotient for DC superheroes on screen is high again. This shouldn’t be super-surprising considering director Zach Snyder’s movies are believed to be have some of the highest body-counts in movies ever.

Bourne meanwhile, no matter what you think of these films, is not only low on actual deaths in this film, but is historically that way, too. In 2002’s The Bourne Identity he matches the first Bond film, with only four kills. Seen a certain way, you could say that right now Bourne and Bond are less deadly than traditional “good guys,” like Batman and Superman. Of course, there’s a strong argument to be made here that glorifying this kind of behavior at all, in any context, only contributes to a more violent culture, one that creates mass shootings.

A defaced Bourne poster on the NYC subway

Recently filmmakers, Tami Sagher and Lena Dunham encouraged people in New York City to “rip-off the guns present in all the public posters for Jason Bourne. Matt Damon publicly said that he “gets it,” and understood why people wouldn’t “want to see guns right now.” Though he also claimed he didn’t feel the portrayal of gunplay in the ads or the film was “gratuitous.” Plus, while promoting the film in Australia, Damon specifically called for a nation-wide ban on guns in the United States. In a way, this mirrors Christian Bale turning up in Aurora, Colorado to offer support the victims of the mass shootings in 2012.

The real question being begged here is what is the appeal of a film like Jason Bourne or for that matter, Dr. No? In 1992, Terminator 2: Judgement Day sported the robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger “terminator” character promising not to kill anyone. The scene in the movie is slightly different than the scene in the trailer, indicating that the marketing of this film wanted you to understand a film like the Terminator (despite its name) was not going to necessarily be about the glorification of fatal violence.

With Terminator 2 in specific, most people don’t remember the guns, but they do remember the big chase scenes. Ditto for Bond or Bourne movies. The excitement and danger of potential death is part of what makes the conflict in these films so exciting. You could say that the pulse-pounding action doesn’t truly need to be accompanied by the depiction of death. If Bond can spare Blofeld in Spectre and Bourne can only commit one murder in his latest film, it’s very possible the next big action good feature zero murders. And the most compelling question is maybe this: if Bourne (or Bond) didn’t kill anyone in their next outing, would you miss it?

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