19 electrifying soundtrack moments from the Bourne trilogy

Celebrating John Powell's thrilling contribution to the classic franchise

This article contains spoilers for The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.

After 9 years in hiding, Matt Damon’s assassin Jason Bourne steps out of the shadows in Paul Greengrass’ newly released blockbuster of the same name, and it promises to be a spectacular continuation of one of the greatest action trilogies of all time. Also along for the ride is British composer John Powell (this time teaming with David Buckley) whose relentlessly driving music is as important a presence in the original trilogy as Damon himself.

Here are the highlights from Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum.

1. The Bourne IdentityMain Titles

The moment where it all begins for Jason and us the audience, as our mysterious title character is fished out of the sea at the start of Doug Liman’s movie with bullet holes in his back and no memory of how he got there. Powell immediately establishes his two primary themes for Jason that will weave their way through the series, beginning with the lonely, haunting bassoon theme representing his essential humanity and, most famously, the string action ostinato that comes to act as his musical heartbeat in moments of extreme tension.

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2. The Bourne IdentityTreadstone Assassins

In 2002 when Identity was released, Powell had a relatively slim five years worth of film credits to his name, albeit major releases like Face/Off, Antz and Shrek. As a result, his integration of pulsating electronics with the choppy string section and dynamic percussion is somewhat harsh and not quite as sophisticated as in the later scores but it was to prove enormously influential on pretty much every genre score in its wake (the impact on Thomas Newman’s James Bond work is notable). This rhythmically diverse track encapsulates the very tone Liman was looking for when Powell replaced Carter Burwell’s original, more traditional approach.

3. The Bourne IdentityBourne On Land

Powell is a composer with a terrific dramatic sense, able to pit seemingly conflicting textures against one another to enhance the impact of a given moment. In this track, by placing a melancholy piano and string accompaniment against the enveloping electronic tapestry he captures both the mystery of Bourne’s journey and the ever-present menace of the Treadstone agency coming after him. It feels both old-fashioned and contemporary all at once, a touch of John Barry with a distinct 21st century kicker.

4. The Bourne IdentityEscape From Embassy

The Bourne trilogy hangs together brilliantly well with each subsequent movie alluding to, and building on, key scenes and emotional moments from what has gone before. This approach extends to the soundtracks as well: this explosion of musical energy as Bourne flees from the US Embassy in Zurich (the first proper action scene in the series) marks the first appearance of a relentless string/synth motif that is later utilised in Supremacy‘s Bim Bam Smash car chase sequence.

5. The Bourne IdentityThe Apartment

The action highlight of the Identity score is a cacophonous assault from thunderous percussion and piercing electronics, a savage moment of musical violence that perfectly captures the nature of the jaw-dropping apartment fight between Jason and a would-be Treadstone assassin (where, lest we forget, pen beats knife). The synthetic effects undoubtedly were more cutting-edge at the time of the film’s release but it’s still nail-biting stuff, and reprised during Ultimatum‘s New York foot chase sequence.

6. The Bourne IdentityReady Steady Go

A relative rarity in the Bourne universe, the first movie’s pedal-to-the-metal Paris car chase, in which the good ol’ Mini Cooper shows what it’s capable of, is scored to Paul Oakenfold’s floor-filler, as opposed to Powell’s score. Nevertheless, it works a treat and the song was later reworked into Korean for the nightclub shootout in 2004 Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx thriller Collateral.

7. The Bourne SupremacyGoa Chase

Paul Greengrass takes the helm for the 2004 sequel and his kinetic, hand-held style energises Powell’s musical approach from the off. The film of course begins on a shocking note as Bourne’s girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) is killed by assassin Kirill (Karl Urban); in this track, Powell’s earth-shaking mixture of percussion, rattles and the omnipresent string section is immediately more confident and better-wrought, showcasing a far more effective build-up of tension than that displayed in the Identity score.

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8. The Bourne SupremacyFuneral Pyre

One of the many superb aspects of the Bourne scores is the multitude of emotions they’re able to convey. A far cry from the blusterous action material that grabs most of the attention, this genuinely moving piece establishes the devastation Jason feels in the wake of Marie’s death, a far more tender and emotionally intuitive piece of scoring than this genre usually allows for. It’s a crucial moment, building into a statement of defiance as he sets out on a vengeful course with those looking destroy his life.

9. The Bourne SupremacyNach Deutschland

Another of Powell’s signature ‘Bourne travelling’ tracks takes over, resonating with steadfast determination as our central character takes off towards the German capital in search of answers. Powell’s command of his electronic section is a vast improvement on Identity, resonating with understated yet catchy pulses that speak brilliantly of Bourne’s relentless search for the truth. At the same time his loyalty to Bourne’s main theme keeps the action firmly rooted in the title character’s emotional journey.

10. The Bourne SupremacyBerlin Foot Chase

One of the finest and most grippingly exciting showcases of the trilogy’s ostinato action theme comes in this five minute extravaganza, one accompanying Jason’s pursuit by police across crowded Alexanderplatz in Berlin. (Warning: playing whilst out for a walk will escalate said activity into a run.) The interplay between strings, samples and drums is quite dazzling, Powell ramping up the tension and playing off Bourne’s merciless fight for survival brilliantly. Listen out for a reprisal of the material in Ultimatum‘s Tangiers chase.

11. The Bourne SupremacyNew Memories

Yet more proof that Powell’s work on the Bourne series transcends mere action and adrenaline, this moving reprise of Bourne‘s central theme is among the most beautiful in the series, a lament for everything that he has been compelled to sacrifice. The composer’s expert use of the bassoon carries a mournful yet humane tone, reminding us of the new path that Jason is determined to travel.

12. The Bourne SupremacyBim Bam Smash

The second movie concludes with what’s inarguably one of the greatest car chase sequences ever put to film, a seat-clenching melee of mayhem taking place on the streets of Moscow as Bourne and Kirill finally face each other down. Its impact would be considerably lessened without the frantically frenetic impact of Powell’s score, a tremendous explosion of musical excitement that gradually builds up Bourne‘s action theme to stupendous heights as the track reaches its jolting climax. Almost certainly one of the greatest tracks ever heard in an action movie.

13. The Bourne UltimatumTangiers

As the third (and, to date, best) movie gets underway, Powell’s bridging of the orchestral/electronic divide becomes near-seamless, rhythmic cells of strings and drums playing off their synthetic counterparts in a manner that’s truly thrilling. This 7-minute belter of a track is a musical rollercoaster in every sense of the word, carrying the audience along on a wave of adrenaline as Bourne races by bike, on foot, across rooftops and through windows to save enemy-turned-ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) from asset Desh (Joey Ansah). By referring back to motifs from earlier in the series Powell ably ties everything together, whilst also reinforcing the endless cycle of action and mayhem in which Bourne finds himself.

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14. The Bourne UltimatumWindow To Window

A sadly unreleased piece from the Ultimatum soundtrack, this onslaught of drumming (utilising, in Powell’s typical style, region-specific instrumentation) is one of the most visceral moments in any of the scores, the perfect way to build anticipation prior to the Bourne/Desh fight scene. It also makes the absence of music during the fight itself all the more effective.

15. The Bourne UltimatumFaces Without Names

Even in the midst of this, quite possibly the most relentless and action-oriented of the Bourne scores, Powell is wise enough to make the most of his emotional downtime. This desolate reprise of Jason’s theme on graceful strings is nothing less than a statement of the character as a whole, a portrait of a man looking to redeem himself after a life of violence whilst remembering the tragic fate of his great love, Marie. Powell’s ability to render Bourne’s emotional anguish in spare yet affecting terms enhances the power of the music no end.

16. The Bourne UltimatumWaterloo

The longest piece from any of the scores, this 10-minute behemoth is a masterclass in how to construct musical tension, Powell springing from one turbulent motif to another to craft a genuine sense of threat as Bourne guides journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) beneath the all-seeing eyes of Waterloo’s CCTV network. The track also demonstrates Powell’s dramatic intuition: director Greengrass’ astonishingly crafted sequence is not one that calls for sensationalist statements in its music but rather a slow-burning sense of the net closing in; Powell responds with some of the finest, most cutting-edge soundtrack music heard in the last decade.

17. The Bourne UltimatumFace To Face

OK, so this is more a scene reprising the Apartment fight music material from Identity – but it’s so badass, and Powell’s score so perfectly synched to Bourne’s badassery, that it has to be included. When Bourne rings slippery antagonist Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) seemingly to arrange a meet, little does the latter know that the former is already in his office, leading to one of the greatest lines in the series. When Powell’s drumbeat kicks in upon Bourne putting the phone down, it’s hard not to get pumped.

18. The Bourne UltimatumJason Is Reborn

The original trilogy concludes on the same intriguing note with which it began, surprising us all with the revelation that Jason in fact volunteered for the Treadstone special ops programme and essentially determined his own fate. It’s a reminder of the emotional undercurrents coursing through the series and Powell’s final dramatic statement of Jason’s theme brings everything back down to earth; after all the musical thrills and spills, this has been at the end of the day a story of a man in search of himself. And Powell’s terrific music is as important as anything in taking us on that journey.

19. The Bourne UltimatumExtreme Ways (Bourne’s Ultimatum)

The ear-worming Moby staple Extreme Ways had graced the end credits of the preceding two movies and here it gets a souped-up, reworked, ever-so-slightly more operatic version that befits the epic conclusion of the action-packed franchise. When the first few bars of the song kick in at the film’s conclusion, accompanying Nicky’s sly smile and the shot of Bourne swimming away along the Hudson River, it’s hard not to cheer.

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