Ranking the Bourne Movies

From The Bourne Identity through to The Bourne Legacy, we revisit the Bourne series, and rank the films...

It’s an exciting time to be a Jason Bourne fan, for on July 29th 2016 there will finally be a new film from Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass hitting the big screen. It had looked unlikely for years, with both star and director apprehensive about returning to the franchise, but finally the fates (and no doubt some intense wooing from Universal) have conspired to bring them back together for more.

It’s an exciting prospect as their work together resulted in some of the finest action thrills to hit the silver screen in recent times, and getting Bourne himself back in the driving seat is more than needed to keep the series alive, especially after the misfire that takes place at the bottom spot in this list by quite a margin.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the four films that make up the saga so far – ranked in reverse order of quality.

4. The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Now let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a hater of The Bourne Legacy, but it is riddled with problems.

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The core issue is that it’s simply quite forgettable. As a testament to that, let’s take a quick poll – without checking the internet, can anyone immediately remember what the name of Jeremy Renner’s character is? It’s trickier than it should be and it’s not helped, like the rest of the film, by the fact that he’s not called Bourne and therefore the film’s own title is a misnomer. The Bourne Legacy is the kind of label you’d expect to be on the boxset to surmise the original trilogy, not to name a film that has approximately zero Jason Bourne in.

At the very least you’d expect Renner’s Aaron Cross to share the surname, since we discovered in Ultimatumthat Bourne was an alias anyway – Keith Bourne for example would have made a fine addition to the roster.

Unbelievably for Hollywood there wasn’t even an attempt to use the easiest spin on the new leads’ name, why not Crossfire: The Bourne Legacy? Hardly original perhaps, but at least it wouldn’t have missold the film in quite the same way.

When trying to judge the merits of Legacyas a standalone action thriller, things become increasingly difficult as a result of the substantial shadow that looms throughout in the form of both Bourne’s name and image, which becomes a constant point of reference to the point of distraction. It’s as if there’s a fear people will forget the films are connected, but then it only makes you want to go back and watch the superior antics of the original trilogy.

Renner makes a fine lead, but his character lacks the dry wit his other, more memorable characters have at their disposal such as Hawkeye and Brandt in Avengers and Mission: Impossible respectively, and can’t elicit sympathy in the way that Bourne’s amnesia allowed for. Elsewhere Rachel Weisz, a fine actress and one who even managed to bluster up some fun with her presence in The Mummy movies, has little to do other than scream a la damsel in distress, which is always a frustrating waste when even The Mummy’s Evy was allowed the flexibility to evolve from comic ditz to ass kicker. Likewise Edward Norton – a man whose CV is peppered with exceptionally nuanced and, at times, psychotically evil roles – his character spends most of the film being mildly annoyed in front of computer monitors and little else.

All the component parts that form The Bourne Legacyshould add up to a great film, but instead slow pacing and far too infrequent bursts of moderate action only show how immaculately executed the original movies are. It’s a real shame as director Tony Gilroy understands the dynamics of the Bournemovies better than anyone, having written all of them, but in much the same way as happened with David S Goyer and Blade Trinity, the addition of directorial duties seems to have only served as a distraction.

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Defining scene: Legacy does have a couple of moments that work, especially the Terminator-esque shooting spree in the laboratory that carries a chill due to the nature of the perpetrator, but the final chase scene is the one to choose here I think.

It’s telling that we’ve had to wait an hour and fifty minutes before getting to the franchise’s always exhilarating pursuit, and it does feel like a well overdue reward after listening to endless references to Jason Bourne. Running at over fifteen minutes the action takes place across multiple terrains and transport, with a satisfying and bone crunching denouement that almost, almost, makes you forget how dry the film has been up to that point. Still, there’s hope that lessons have been learned and there’s plenty of scope to make a successful crossover, which at the very least would put an end to the pining for him that takes place in this film.

3. The Bourne Identity (2002)

Director Doug Liman isn’t given nearly enough credit when it comes to establishing the Bourne franchise, but then again he’s not given nearly enough credit full stop, despite making several strong movies in multiple genres.

When Swingers came out it felt like a fresh take on male friendships in movies and seemed like a genuine start to the new wave of so called ‘bromance’ flicks that have become a frequent and reliable source of box office revenue since – just look at The Hangover or anything else Vince Vaughn did after 2001. Likewise Go remains a superb piece of indie filmmaking, with its impeccable style and massively talented and underappreciated cast, that transposed the fractured narrative re-popularised by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction on to a more youthful and grounded narrative.

Just last year Liman helmed Edge Of Tomorrow, an electrifying and fresh sci-fi movie that we’ve championed across several thousands of words here at Den Of Geek. It played out as a strong and confidently handled film, even when the actual shoot tested his abilities to the limit, a situation that he’s no stranger to if you’ve been following his work since the start.

There’s a fantastic interview with Liman over at Rolling Stone that covers exactly what makes Liman such a unique and controversial talent, as well as a great reminder that when he started work on The Bourne Identityhe had never tackled a film that involved the scale and pressure of a big Hollywood movie, having only a couple of independent films to his name at the time. There’s also mention of some of controversies and fighting that took place between Liman and the studio during the first Bournefilm, with his demands for re-shoots and refusal to conform to the usual action-thriller staples – Universal wanted more explosions and bigger scale fight scenes which, ironically considering my choice for the defining scene below, would have involved Bay-ifying the slow build and intimacy of the farm scene.

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Despite the troubled production, the resultant film proved to be both a critical and financial success, providing Universal the solid base on which to build the sequels upon, even if they didn’t want Liman to be a part of that world anymore.

However, it’s easy to forget exactly how much of an impact The Bourne Identity’s success had on the future landscape of action cinema, the ramifications of which are still in effect today. Jason Bourne had given the world an everyman action hero, one completely divorced from the muscle clad ’80s icons, who was cast on acting merit above physicality and ushered in a new era of shaky camera movements and fast editing, a trend that was perfectly surmised by Dolph Lundgren when we spoke to him some years ago.

“It came a little bit with the Bourne series, that took a really good actor who wasn’t really a fighter, but the story was perfect because it said how can he be such a lethal fighter, you know? How can Matt Damon be so lethal? He doesn’t know who he is, you were wondering who he is, and how he can fight like that? And in order to accomplish that it had to use a special editing job. Because you couldn’t really see what was going on. Then everybody copied that style, like what you were saying, where you can’t see what’s going on. Whereas in the old days, when me and Stallone were fighting in the ring, everything was real. It was all us. There was nobody else in there. Stallone, with no shirt on, getting hit while he was directing the movie. That doesn’t happen much anymore. [laughs]”

There’s an interesting contrast too, between the likelihood that without Bourne there would be no Taken, for exactly the reasons described above, yet more immediately Bourne’s success resulted in studios wanting to make their action stars younger too. The knock on effect meant that Pierce Brosnan’s older gentlemen spy was unceremoniously ditched in favor of a younger restart with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (an adaptation Brosnan had been championing as his next Bond movie) and the same trend also meant that the long gestated Batman: Year One prequel finally shifted into gear in the new form of Batman Begins.

Irrespectively, The Bourne Identityremains a well crafted thriller, cleverly holding back from an action onslaught by allowing explosive little outbursts, sometimes at unexpected times, adding a weightier punch to every encounter. There’s also a real power to Matt Damon’s sympathetic portrayal of a man who, quite literally, doesn’t know his own strength and it’s the grounded heroism of Bourne that makes us root for him in spite of his shady past.

Defining scene: “Look at what they make you give.” So says the mighty Clive Owen as he lies bleeding out in the middle of a field, alone and cold. It’s a beautifully played out moment that really embodies everything that makes the Bournetrilogy so perfect – we’ve spent time a little time with Jason and Marie at the farm, so there’s been space to let their characters breathe and connect, but the constant sense of threat keeps the tension running and once the dog goes missing we know things are about to escalate.

What makes the stalk and shoot so rewarding is the few words shared between Bourne and The Professor, where Owen delivers his lines with a sense of amusement and despair that’s so different to the usual gung-ho final words we’ve seen hundreds of times before. There’s no discernible difference between the two men, no good and bad, just flawed and exploited personalities and a sense of futility to their lives that steeps their actions with a sense of reality that helped set The Bourne Identity and the films that followed above and beyond Hollywood’s standard output.

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2. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Ah, The Bourne Ultimatum. If I had a penny for every argument I’d had over why it’s a (slightly) lesser film than Supremacy, I’d have some pennies. More importantly those who count themselves as Ultimatum champions include our own editor Simon Brew and my wife, so there’s been a fairly regular chance to indulge in that particular argument over the years. As much as I love Ultimatum, it’s always felt just a little tacked on; even if the plot twists and developments from the previous film are ingeniously incorporated, they still have an air of afterthought.

Take for example the moment in Supremacy when Bourne threatens Nicky – Julia Stiles has always been exceptional when it comes to portraying upset and that skill really elevates how close to death she feels when he has her at gunpoint – so surely at that point she would have exclaimed she cared for him, when there was nothing else to lose? It’s an intense and powerful scene and since we’re given to believe that Bourne can sense when people are lying to him, combined with that style of interrogation, means that Nicky should have confessed to just about anything if she was guilty, or felt anything beyond a professional relationship.

That said it’s really a case of splitting hairs, as unlike so many franchises we’ve looked at in these articles, the Bourne trilogy remains one of cinema’s finest with no weak link and a very narrow margin between how they’re ranked. Nicky’s revealed connection to Bourne of course has its upside, as she becomes a much more important part of Ultimatum’s central plot and we invest in the character much more knowing that any threat to her will take its toll on poor Jason, who by this point is really in need of a well deserved break.

That emotional investment also drives the incredible thrill that is the rooftop chase, a scene that very nearly made the defining section below, as the multi-level pursuit is impeccably well crafted as we follow all three protagonists. It also resulted in another now much emulated action movie trope – the window ledge jump cam – that ended up in multiple computer games and even Quantum Of Solace, continuing Bourne’s influence on the Craig era reboot of Bond one year later.

As if the chase in itself wasn’t enough we then get the obligatory, but never any less joyous, hand to hand to fight scene, though this time Bourne upgrades his magazine to a book, sticking to the sequel law that everything should increase in size.

It’s strange actually, considering how pioneering the franchise has been, that by part three we expect certain elements to be present in order to make Ultimatum feel like a Bourne film (as we had done with Bond for years until Skyfall). Greengrass and Damon face an interesting challenge with number four as the series needs its hand to hand scuffle and vehicular chase, but perhaps could do without the ‘he’s not dead really’ ending (though it never fails to elicit the joyous need to cheer) and a need to see so many people in a tech room shouting his name every time he pops back up. If Bourne 4 wants to continue the fine form of the trilogy, then it might be time to redefine the conventions once more and take ‘Dave’ into entirely new territory.

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Defining scene: The Waterloo subterfuge is a masterclass in both tension and the skills that make Bourne such an incredible character to behold. His ability to improvise with anything around him have always been a thrill, but the execution by which he guides Paddy Considine’s journalist through the minefield of staying covert in the face of danger gives us both insight and the worrying realisation that when you have no idea who the threat is, even a disgruntled looking cleaner could be a potential assassin and god knows we have plenty of them around London – grumpy cleaners that is.

Considine’s terror and panic make us realise quite how in control of any situation Bourne is, as he’s able to immediately predict and deal with multiple people, cameras and the chaos of a busy train station without breaking a sweat. As a viewer you can’t help but scream frustration when fear upends the best laid plan, but the tense atmosphere is at least slightly relieved when a few agents end up on the receiving end of a good face breaking. More’s the pity that the conclusion of the scene results in an abrupt end to Mr Considine’s screen time.

1. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

When you absolutely love a film, when it hits every beat and surpasses all your expectations, it becomes much more difficult to express critical thinking, especially when that very film has an emotional attachment to a place in time that just can’t be replicated.

When Identity was first released I’m ashamed to admit that it took a second viewing to really connect with me, I think mostly because I’d gone in expecting the usual non-stop explosive action movie conventions and hadn’t got them, so it took a readjustment and a chance to let the film sit in my brain for my love to start growing. If time was what started the Bourneobsession, it was the trailer and subsequent cinematic viewing of Supremacy that cemented my attachment to the material forever. It’s a strange thing not to know how excited you are for a sequel until you see the trailer, but the debut of Supremacy’s had me counting down the days until its release and to this day it remains one of the most impactful, emotionally and visually, experiences I’ve had at the cinema.

Two moments in particular stand out in my memory and both involved a combination of surprise and sound to make me jump several inches above my seat. The first was the loud and sudden shot that ended, quite unexpectedly, the life of Marie (as played by the always underappreciated Franka Potente) which managed to inject another level of tragedy into Bourne’s life and one that, for my money, is the reason Supremacy tops this list. It gives the film the visceral power that only comes with a revenge plotline, as we know we’re about to see what a government weapon can do with no restraints and a burning desire to track down those responsible. The sheer thrill of expectation for what follows is why revenge movies, from Point Break, to Mad Max, to John Wick, always have a unique and cathartic effect on those that love them.

The second moment comes during the climatic car chase between Bourne and the mighty Karl Urban’s ice cold bastard, Kirill, when yet again the series implemented a now oft-copied shot of the surprise smash into the side of Bourne’s car – it’s a split second moment, but showing the impact from the inside added another dimension to the standard pursuit and at the time I can’t remember the effect being used in an action film before. The chase as a whole, though, managed to one up the already spectacular version in Identity, elevated further by John Powell’s aptly named track Bim Bam Smash (and Powell’s Supremacy score as a whole is also his most well rounded and accomplished in the trilogy, making the Treadstone Assassins theme much more central to the core of the film) alongside some cracking choreography.

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Alongside the action, there’s also a plethora of great supporting characters and performances. It’s great seeing the aforementioned Nicky dragged back into the line of fire and praising Brian Cox for stellar work is like complementing the sun for being hot – it’s always a given, yet always an utter joy to bathe in – though his ‘Show me again’ moment still shocks.

For me though, the majority of the plaudits go to Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy, as her determination to cut through the bureaucratic bullshit and casual sexism sets her on her own mission, while the ever growing sense of trust between her and Bourne is an intriguing watch, especially when it’s taking place down the sight of a sniper rifle. Allen injects the perfect balance of grit and common sense into a character that could quite easily have become trite or annoying, she’s also nicely removed enough from the murderous intentions of those around her to add weight to Cox’s exit strategy.

It’s not just Landy that humanises proceedings, but Bourne’s own journey of self-discovery which raises the bar on Supremacy’s action-thriller roots. Outside of Marie’s assassination and the encounter with Nicky, what made the film so gripping on initial viewing was the very real sense that Bourne was going to be killed off. We sit and watch him bleed out while giving the poignant ‘I would want to know’ speech to the daughter of two of his victims and I remember thinking that he was either going to die in the chair, or that she was going to shoot him. There’s not even a sense of relief when we cut away, as right down to its last frame the film keeps the threat of death tantalisingly close and that’s a rare feat indeed.

Quite simply The Bourne Supremacy is haunting, exhilarating and beautifully powerful. It’s a sequel that surpasses the original in every way and delivers the kind of emotional action that’s rarely been seen outside of the eighties, when so much of it was part of character driven stories and cross genres in films like The Terminator and Aliens.

It remains to be seen if Jason Bourne and the world he inhabits can go on to span decades, as the lighter shade of Bond has always done, with multiple re-incarnations and key villains. It’s never leant itself to that kind of franchise up to this point, but with a fifth film happening and the potential crossover I’ve no doubt the name will be a constant part of Hollywood, even if the main players change.

Here’s hoping they can all learn from the blueprint left by an indie director who pushed himself against the studio to make something quite unique and influential that will always be a key part of cinema’s history.

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Defining scene: Ah face breakage, the cornerstone of the Bourne trilogy.

Now I adore the naïve rookie who announces he has Bourne in the room with him and attempts to deal with the situation with not a hope in hell, but if there’s one moment I’ve always loved it’s the magazine fight.

Facing off against the ever changing and ubiquitous face of Marton Csokas, it’s such a brief and brutal fight, but there’s something unbelievably cool and exciting about watching our Jason fuck somebody up using a magazine – a magazine! Yes that’s right, I’m actually prepared to break out a rare exclamation mark to express my absolute joy at the sight. It’s that perfect summation of how well trained in the art of deadly improvisation the agents are, that they can take something some common place and seemingly innocuous and weaponise it.

It’s a shame when watching the ‘making of’ that the quick-fire editing strips a little of the impact away, seen during the fight rehearsal, but it’s a small price to pay when we’ll never be able to look at a copy of Hello magazine in the same light again.