The term “action hero” has come to mean many different things over the decades in cinema. Depending on the decade you grew up in, it may conjure images of a muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger hefting a massive machine gun. Or maybe it’s Spider-Man, rescuing civilians from a garishly-colored supervillain. It could be James Bond, dry martini in one hand and Walther PPK in the other. But as trends change, worldviews shift, and new ideas of what a hero is arise, the idea of an action hero is altered to fit new parameters, morals, and responsibilities.
And no character has had quite as unique of an impact on the idea of an action hero in recent years as Jason Bourne, the enigmatic government operative whose amnesia gives him a new purpose and a fresh start in life, if only he could escape from the government agency hounding him at every step.
While the character had existed since author Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity in 1980, he didn’t come into the mainstream consciousness until the 2002 film adaptation of the same name starring Matt Damon as the titular character and directed by Doug Liman. As such, the reverberations caused by the hero can be more clearly felt in the modern action movie, whose timing in a freshly post-9/11 world is a fortuitous as it is tragic. While the character of Jason Bourne can also be seen as having an impact in spy novels (the series now has 12 books, carrying on long after the death of Ludlum through the writings of Eric Van Lustbader), the Bourne films have a reach that the novels have never quite had while also being vastly different from the source material.
With the series launching thanks to the success of The Bourne Identity, this modern spy franchise continued to grow and evolve through the follow-ups The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Maybe not The Bourne Legacy so much. This Flowers for Algernon meets Mission: Impossible spinoff of the franchise was a misfire that has little to do with the character of Bourne and is largely responsible for Matt Damon’s return to the franchise in 2016’s Jason Bourne.
But the character of Bourne, his world, and the themes that pervade this trilogy of movies are largely responsible for a major shift in the action film genre and the path that it has taken in the last decade and a half.
First and foremost is the character of Jason Bourne. When we first meet our hero in Identity, he’s floating unconscious in the ocean with bullets in his back. But when he’s yanked out of the water by a passing fishing boat, he can no longer remember his past or name. The mysterious circumstances of his condition, a trail of ominous clues, and a skill set that would make James Bond jealous eventually reveal Bourne to be a U.S. government operative for the covert department known as Treadstone.
But the skills and mysteries of this international spy are far from glamorous in The Bourne Franchise. Rather, violence is presented as raw, rough, and often cringe-inducing (just look at the pen in the hand during one of Bourne’s best fights). Many give credit to the series as the reason behind modern Hollywood’s more realistic and grounded fight scenes, which it certainly deserves, but they often overlook the way these films approach violence and the reasons behind it. Bourne transforms from a man trying to survive to a man working to take down the corrupt agency that used him, all the while attempting to learn more about who he really is.
While Bourne’s past as an undercover operative echoes James Bond, he’s far removed from the dashing, extravagant, outrageous spy hero created by Ian Fleming. Rather, Bourne was a ruthless killer, sent to eliminate whoever was deemed dangerous by his government handlers. That idea undermines any sort of glamour and instead emphasizes the horror of it all. The more we see of both Bourne’s past and the fellow agents coming to kill him, the more we understand the monstrous nature of his past.
Bourne in action is a sight to behold and is the definition of modern action cinema (and not in a dated, “2 x-treme” way like then-contemporary Vin Diesel vehicle xXx). He’s efficient, fast, resourceful, and effective. There is no glamorous sweeping choreography, just combatants looking to destroy each other as efficiently as possible. While that may seem boring or even uncinematic, directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass (who would use both handheld camera and a more intimate directing style in sequels The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) injected their fights with a propulsive energy and danger that was uncommon for the time. The fast cutting and close proximity of the camera would become one of the most copied aspects of The Bourne Franchise, but most films in the time since have failed to replicate its power. That’s because Liman and especially Greengrass used the filming style to enhance the frantic and raw nature of the action, shooting and cutting with remarkable precision and flow. The imitators just used it to hide poor choreography or a lack of talent concerning how to shoot action. Looking at you, Christopher Nolan.
Not enough can be said of the ruthless and troubling nature of the government agency that birthed Bourne. After all, it’s the impetus and focus for every film in the franchise. But what Treadstone and its agents represent show a far more critical eye toward the government than what was typical at the time. Sure, corrupt government officials and agents have always been a staple of films, but Treadstone is an outgrowth of what the U.S. government stands for, even if it has secretly violated protocols and rights without the larger government knowing. When The Bourne Identity debuted, it was in the shadow of the September 11th terror attacks and in the midst of the Afghanistan invasion, a time when patriotism was running high. To indict the government to this degree was bold.
As the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars dragged on, the Bourne Franchise would continue their critical stance. Bourne may have escaped in Identity, but a furious and unrelenting government who sees even the idea of a threat as a must-kill target cannot leave the former agent alone. While Identity gave audiences a self-contained thriller with an upbeat ending, follow-ups Supremacy and Ultimatum would wisely walk back the first film’s tidy ending in order to dig far deeper into the ugliness of the government and its goals, as well as Bourne’s residual trauma. Accompanied by Greengrass’s documentary-like lens, closed door dealings, torture, and cover-up assassinations would take just as much precedence as Bourne’s world-crossing action hero feats. It all adds a greater weight and pathos to the matter, as Bourne’s personal fight for freedom and the recovery of his memories directly tie into the misdeeds conducted by the U.S. government. It is at once a far more personal story and a far more insidious one that ties into growing mistrust of a modern government that subverts the will of the people for personal and political agenda.
The most obvious and immediate impact of the Bourne Franchise can be seen in the James Bond franchise reboot Casino Royale. The previous Bond entry, Die Another Day, debuted in November 2002, six months after the premiere of The Bourne Identity, and when it did so, it was remarkably out of step with the tastes of modern audiences. Not only is Die Another Day possibly the worst Bond film, it also represented how hackneyed and fossilized the series had become. After pushing the outlandish and eye roll-inducing campiness of the Pierce Brosnan Bond era as far as it could go in modern times, Bourne had come along and completely upended the spy action genre.
In response to horrible reviews and poor performance, EON Productions decided to completely retool Bond with a hard reboot that put the suave MI-6 agent far more in line with the hardened and haunted hero of Bourne. Of course, in typical Bond Franchise fashion, they pushed the idea even further with the dour and brutal Quantum of Solace, which gave up all hope of being fun and exciting in favor of lean, joyless thrills. But The Bond Franchise has always been a trend chaser, constantly looking to catch up to what audiences are into three years prior. After Quantum, their reactive push toward to classic Bond in Skyfall gave way to the campiness of Spectre, which meshed poorly with the still Bourne-like Bond played by Daniel Craig. But that’s the burden of being a franchise that has lasted for 50 years. The Bourne Franchise has existed solely on film in the post-9/11 world, whereas Bond has had to adapt to countless culture shifts in order to stay relevant and lucrative.
But to The Bond Franchise, the moralism and ruthlessness of The Bourne Franchise has always been a phase, which makes Bourne’s unwavering entrenchment in these themes far more impactful to the action genre overall.
In the decade since Damon’s last appearance as Bourne, the modern action film has continued to evolve, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its ilk becoming the go-to template for a large chunk of the genre. However, while the modern superhero film has come to inform what many see as the current action movie mold, Bourne’s influences can still be seen in films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and even the rebooted Star Trek series. Themes of government distrust and moralistic gut checks made by the central protagonists are still highly relevant in modern society, where questioning authority and government surveillance invade the news cycle on an hourly basis.
And while those ideas would no doubt have presented themselves in the modern era in some form or another, The Bourne Franchise successfully crystalized them in a way that informed its narrative, action, and character. It’s an effectively astute and focused use of theme that has kept Jason Bourne and his adventures relevant in ways that are simultaneously inspiring and troubling.