I think I should explain why I hate the Bourne Trilogy.
Mostly because I’ve had this discussion a lot lately and any time I do that I usually create a journal entry about it.
And this one’s bothered me for a year.
Because everyone has the opinion that the Bourne trilogy of films is somehow good when, in reality, it’s a story that’s mostly about pissing around accomplishing little with really terrible camera work and a couple of good fight scenes.
In the first film.
The only good thing to come from those films is the fact that it allowed us to have Casino Royale. A much, much better spy film.
But if you want to truly understand why the Bourne films are just terrible you really, really need to know about the books.
So let me tell you.
If you want to imagine how good the books are compared to the films I want you to imagine the original Star Wars Trilogy. Now, imagine they started as a book trilogy as well written as the films were made. Now, imagine that when they made a film adaptation they got rid of Darth Vader and the Death Star.
I’m not joking about this.
Now imagine instead of the plots of the second and third films where Luke becomes a Jedi Master and has great battles against the empire and deals a lasting blow, he kind of just pisses around and occasionally deals them a blow but never really becomes anything special or does anything that really changes things.
Oh and give Leia a bland personality and kill her in the second movie. Just do that. Then and only then would you have an understanding about what happened to Jason Bourne.
In his time Jason Bourne was the spy version of Star Wars. Critically praised, absolutely beloved and changed the way people think about politics and spy stories. The first book in the trilogy was written in 1980 by Robert Ludlum with the final book, The Bourne Ultimatum being released in 1990. Now you might be quick to point out that there have been more Ludlum novels based on Bourne since then. I will then inform you that Ludlum himself died in 2001 and that the subsequent sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum came out in 2004. The same year as the second film.
I won’t say a damn thing more about the books not written by Ludlum save for one thing. One of the Bourne novels involves unlocking the mystery of King Solomon’s Gold. I’m just going to leave that plot from National Treasure right there.
So what the hell is the story of Jason Bourne?
Jason Bourne is actually a spy named David Webb. You see When we first meet Bourne his memory has been fragmented beyond belief due to a traumatic head injury. Unlike the film, a canister of microfilm reveals the name Treadstone 71 and the bank account in Zurich.
During his journey Bourne meets Marie St. Jacques (who’s actually French-Canadian) and takes her hostage to make a quick escape. He learns that in the Zurich account there’s passports and funds and that Jason Bourne is, in fact, a very well paid assassin for hire.
Despite this he sees to it that Marie is not only safe and quickly released after his escape (I’m jumbling events a bit here so forgive me book fans) but he quickly realizes that he’s being hunted by men pretending to be police officers. They grab Marie and threaten her with violence and rape before Jason comes and saves her. He’s badly injured and Marie sees to his recovery.
During this time we learn that Marie is a god damn brilliant woman but more than that, she deduces that there’s something wrong with Jason’s story. He doesn’t match the mental profile of a sadistic killer and she asserts to him that he must not be the monster he believes he is.
In truth Jason Bourne is only a name, an identity. You see Webb took the identity of Jason Bourne to lure out and assassinate a very particular target named Carlos the Jackal and if that name sounds familiar there’s a god damn good reason.
Carlos the Jackal is the professional name for Carlos Illich Ramierez Sanchez, a very real and prolific political assassin. There are several films and novels that feature this infamous assassin and going into length about him is an article within its own right. Sufficed to say, the novel sets Carlos as something of a master assassin, terrorist and one suspected to be the actual second gunman on the grassy knoll.
Kenndy guys. John F. Kennedy.
Thus, as all other options for the American government failed, to assassinate Carlos a group known as Treadstone 71 is created and decides to fabricate an assassin of their own to challenge Carlos, lure him into the open and kill him.
I will not go into more detail about the events of the novel as it is a true suspense thriller and a rich story overall. I will spoil but one thing: Carlos does escape in the end despite Bourne nearly killing him and gutting his support network. The only fault of the books is that much of Ludlum’s work is often very dry and hard to penetrate for readers.
Conversely, I think the greatest tragedy of the films is by far the treatment of Marie St. Jacques (now Marie Helena Kreutz). In the modern era it’s truly difficult to imagine a female character that goes through her arc of being captured, rescued and then falling in love with her captor while still retaining a strong personality and an inventive mind. In the film Marie is left primarily in the care of Bourne’s expertise and does little but develop a fast romance with a man who’s captured her and then rescued her within a day. Not enough time is given for her to intellectually be curious about Jason and the contradictions of his behaviour let alone for a relationship to develop.
And in the second and third films she is simply killed leaving her no development to work with. Because she’s dead.
The absence of a strong villain shifts Jason’s story into a morality tale which does not work in the scope of a spy thriller. If there isn’t a strong antagonist then there’s nothing to focus the character and give the direction of his choices meaning. In that instance the character’s actions are more about him finding a purpose then achieving resolution. The fact that Bourne is exactly what the film sets him up to be at the outset means that this is a story about redemption which also means that there’s an underlying theme of a man walking away from violence.
Which is sort of a mistake. A good portion of the film’s forward motion and resolution is gained through combat scenes. Especially after his true history is revealed Bourne still just fights his way out. The film is just Bourne trying to find out the truth and the truth is really a disappointing one when it’s reached. As such all we see is Bourne run away from his past and find a new future. If the film was built around that such was with a film like History of Violence, this film focuses more on action scenes and uncovering a mystery set at the beginning. If you have a film with a strong focus on combat action without a clear final fight to give resolution then the overall energy developed in the film is wasted. Likewise if the revelation that drives the majority of the film is similarly weak, then the audience will feel like the time invested wasn’t worthwhile.
The second film Bourne Supremacy, is just shot badly. Period. When I spend the majority of a chase sequence through broken windows and seeing the action slightly out of frame then I start clocking out. We learn more about the Treadstone organization in this film and the subsequent Ultimatum film but within both films it’s clear that the organization is just some convenient way to conjure up an antagonist for Bourne. It seems like the entire trilogy is set on Bourne eventually having a climax with another old man that’s conjured up in that film (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and David Strathaim respectively) as we never get a reference to these men prior.
And these are fine actors! Cox alone should make for a beautiful antagonist with rich dialogue to compensate for a lack of action. Buuuut… we don’t get that. It’s the same “Bourne is just a weapon…” speech repeated ad nausea and by the third go-around the whole experience just blends into one goopy mess. There’s nothing distinctive about the majority of characters and if I have a trilogy where I forget the villain of the first film and mix up the villains of the remaining two films I have either memory problems or they were just dull.
But then with the original draft of this article I received mostly comments on how people at least enjoyed the first film but easily lost interest by the time the third was completed. In that case then this isn’t just a problem I have with the films, its one people have en masse.
So go read the damn book already.
So too does this work exist.