SEPT / OCT 2016: BY RACHEL SEXTON
As part of the action genre, spy films have long since reached the point where they evolved their own tropes and formulas. Beginning in the 1960’s, the covert operative who likes his vodka martinis shaken, not stirred, dominated the big screen. Bond jumpstarted more espionage on screen, though most of it appeared on the small one, with I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, even the spoof Get Smart.
A trend toward psychological thrillers in the spy genre appeared in theatres in the ’70s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that Bond got noteworthy company in feature films when Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels got their first adaptation with The Hunt for Red October and Mission: Impossible transitioned to the silver screen. While Ryan was more of an Everyman workaday CIA analyst, both Bond and Ethan Hunt established that spies traveled all over the world, accomplished daring feats of physical ability, and stopped the bad guy, often with a beautiful woman nearby. Then Jason Bourne arrived in multiplexes and mostly adhered to those conventions and feel fresh at the same time. The Bourne franchise distinguishes itself with an intensely personal story and authentic action sequences.
The spy novel has a rich history and preceding Clancy in that tradition is Robert Ludlum who wrote The Bourne Identity in 1980. Studios released the film version in 2002 starring Matt Damon and directed by Doug Liman. Ludlum wrote two other Bourne novels (another writer continued the series after his death): The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, filmed in 2004 and 2007, also starring Damon and directed by Paul Greengrass. Though I can’t speak to how faithful these films are as adaptations, having never read the novels, they are thrilling action films that achieved a high degree of critical and commercial success.
In fact, critical admiration made Bourne unique at the time of its release. The latest entries in the Bond and Mission franchises tended toward the fantastical and left less of an impression on critics. The Bourne Identity offered a dose of refreshing realism within the bounds of its spycraft. The story of the entire Bourne narrative has as its catalyst a terrific plot device: amnesia.
Identity begins when an unconscious man is fished out of the Mediterranean Sea with bullets in his back and no memory of who he is. Later, he pieces together that he’s Jason Bourne, part of a highly secret CIA program creating medically enhanced super assassins who is now a liability to his own government. This is a defining difference between Bourne and other secret agents: the audience never sees Bourne fighting against a criminal; he is trying to survive being targeted by his former agency. Realism is the hallmark of the action set pieces of all three films, from jarring car chases to bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat. No whizz-bang gadgets here; Bourne uses a rolled-up magazine in one fight scene in Supremacy. The Bourne films make its lead operative’s emotional life a factor in the storytelling. Jason confronts internal conflict as he regains his memories and doesn’t like what he sees.
These highlights from Bourne influenced the other big-screen spies in following films. The first Bond movie after Identity was Casino Royale and the next time we saw Ethan Hunt was Mission: Impossible 3, both released in 2006. They’re each considered one of the best of their series and that is in part because of the grittiness and authenticity Bourne lent to the genre. In these and later installments, Bond and Hunt faced more physical dangers and much more personal stakes. They feel more like Bourne. It’s fitting that the next film in this franchise is 2012’s The Bourne Legacy. It doesn’t feature Jason Bourne, but another member of the same CIA program named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner). Cross faces the same situation as Bourne: being hunted by his own government, just without the amnesia. (The idea still works, though Bourne is best.)
The Bourne series is characterized by a revitalizing realism in its storytelling and action which cemented Jason Bourne’s place among movie spies. In the recent fifth film, Jason Bourne, the title character keeps discovering more and more about his past with the CIA. Damon returns to the role and conveys the toll living in hiding has taken on Jason. That raises the question about the future of the spy for audiences: will we ever see Bourne again? An agent attempts to sway him to come back to work, but its closing moments indicate he won’t reunite with his former agency. The film seems to be a hit at the box office so it’s a safe bet Bourne will reappear. (Perhaps in a team-up with Aaron Cross?) Whatever happens, the patented blend of elements of the Bourne franchise ensure viewers will remember his name.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.