The Headcase and the Hydra: Why Jason Bourne Doesn't Work as a Franchise Hero

Matt Damon in Jason Bourne (2016)

Jason Bourne has big shoulders, but carrying the burden of misinterpretation is too much; he can’t chart a hero’s journey conceived in a rat’s nest.

Jason Bourne

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander
Year: 2016

Often from behind a handgun, Jason Bourne has asked a lot of people in four films some version of, “Who am I?”

The calloused responses have ranged from “killer” (Ward Abbott, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy) to “volunteer” (Dr. Albert Hirsch, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum) to “patriot” (Robert Dewey, 2016’s Jason Bourne). In those moments, the CIA’s elite are all trying to convince the brainwashed assassin that he was destined for this, that it is Bourne’s personal truth to keep being Bourne.

In 2002’s The Bourne Identity, Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper), the first dogged geopolitical line-stepper in this universe to run a black ops program, gave Bourne his most honest answer of the franchise. In his exasperated, football coach drawl, Cooper spat:

“You’re U.S. government property. You’re a malfunctioning 30 million dollar weapon. You’re a total goddam catastrophe.”

Conklin’s dehumanizing assessment of Bourne as a system glitch arrives in the first film, based on the 1980 novel that author Robert Ludlum didn’t intend at the time to springboard a trilogy (much less five films or ten posthumous titles by Eric Van Lustbader.) Similarly, there were no plans for film sequels in 2002, when Bourne Identity received mostly positive reviews and netted $121 million domestically. By contrast, the language of sequel-pitching is only shallowly buried in the Abbott, Hirsch and Dewey quotes from the second, third and fifth movies. Those suits are trying to persuade Bourne of his essential self (a task they’d set out to nullify by scrubbing his brain in the first place) and the ceaselessness of this covert employer/employee relationship.

It becomes increasingly ill-fitting as the film series extends from 2002 to 2016 to appeal to a name, Jason Bourne, which fans of the series know to be as meaningless as any of the other pseudonyms printed on his many passports. So who is Jason Bourne to his proprietors as they chase him for more than a decade through Paris, Moscow, Tangiers or Las Vegas? A threat, an agency failure, a rapidly shifting opportunity cost? He was certainly never meant to be a human being.

As much as running back Jason Bourne this summer (nine years after Damon last starred in one of the films) is an obvious studio play, this movie series’ central story is antithetical to the architecture of contemporary film franchises. Where heroes are concerned, we’re still in a decade when blockbusters are conceived in the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The general schematic: a troubled (probably) man gradually confronts his own darkness and originary trauma, as well as the villains who play upon it. That route of characterization is a reliable one in the flood of comic book and young adult literary adaptations. Sam Mendes even took the approach with his turn at the helm of the Bond franchise, defying 50 years of episodic, biography-absent films.

Origin stories aren’t just stories, they’re the easiest way to give protagonists lifelong trajectories. The journey of a hero becomes traceable through his or her psychology. They’re products of childhood disaster and often their lost parents. But what happens when you impose this model on a character who is no one? Bourne battles through each installment as a slate becoming less blank, but wasn’t the blankness the trick, the character shortcut, that allowed him to squeeze in and out of hunts he didn’t know were unfolding?

To actually build the invisible bridge backward from Jason Bourne to his given name, David Webb, as Bourne Ultimatum and Jason Bourne have done in earnest, runs the risk that what created the series’ numb, silent class of hitmen (known as Treadstone agents) isn’t as memorable or tortuous as the audience might’ve worked up in their own minds. That unseen damage is always implied in the aftermath of the films’ beautifully violent outbursts. Throughout the first two films, Julia Stiles and Franka Potente do critical non-verbal work with stares at Bourne that say, “What did you endure to be able to do what I just saw?” That question is more harrowing than the answers offered in the scripts of Tony Gilroy’s Ultimatum and most especially Greengrass’ and Christopher Rouse’s for Jason Bourne.

The new film’s doubling down on moments of high drama for Bourne (like finding out his CIA father had a hand in coaxing him to join Treadstone) misunderstands how Damon’s performance is being used in the Bourne films. In a career studded with detailed character parts -- Will Hunting, Tom Ripley, Scott Thorson, Colin Sullivan -- this nearly mum pathos of fight-or-flight has no emotional carriage upon which to rely. Bourne never stands still long enough for you to worry why he seldom says more than “we have to move.” He’s a human frame hurtling through space, seemingly accelerated all the more by Greengrass dicing the action of the second, third and fifth films. Damon brings more intense naturalism to the part than Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe or Sylvester Stallone could have when they were initially considered for the role, but it’s not as though the scripts require much in the way of dynamic acting.

No one returns to this series for the title character’s vividity, charm, or depth, so the responsibility for the film’s central conflict fall to the assassin’s creators, the conspiracy artists around Bourne. Done deftly, the American intelligence officers are having an internal struggle worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, a battle of ethics that loses its complexity the more they yell at the monster instead of investigating each other. The CIA’s villainy across the series expands like a bureaucratic hydra.

We began with the project pioneer, Conklin, and his enabler Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), who buried his abuses in classification. When Conklin falls in the first film, the body of that part is recast as Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and the spirit as Treadstone inventor Dr. Hirsch (Albert Finney). When Abbott goes in the second film, well, replace him with Scott Glenn and then with Tommy Lee Jones this summer. Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) becomes our character of marginal conscience in the second and third films, updated in Jason Bourne as cyber division prodigy Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). And Treadstone becomes Blackbriar becomes Operation Outcome becomes Iron Hand.

That evolution fits a theme of toxic global intervention, but the toxin as it relates to Bourne feels diluted as the hydra spawns new heads. They are, after all, just severe careerists in dark suits and glasses. The motivational divide between those who want Bourne dead and those who want information from him is neo-imperialism at all costs vs. neo-imperialism at some costs. To keep the substitute characters from feeling unimportant, the scripts lose their grip on plausible antagonists. Identity and Supremacy fit together as a cover-up, hinging on deniability remaining intact for people up the chain. Jason Bourne, however, features the director of the entire agency demanding public executions of other operatives on the stage of a Las Vegas tech expo.

With Jones’ turn as CIA chief and Vincent Cassel's as Bourne’s rival triggerman lacking any ambiguity, the 2016 film unceremoniously turns the spotlight onto Bourne alone. The unfortunate intention of Jason Bourne, as evidenced in the title, is simply and plainly to be the most character-excavating installment yet. That may be how you safely hold water within a franchise entry, but it goes against its namesake’s central desire. Post-Identity, Bourne asks “why won’t you people leave me alone?” almost as often as “who am I?”

So, garnering middling reviews and a $60 million opening weekend, Jason Bourne somehow positioned itself as the “now it’s personal” movie in a series where nothing is personal. (Most times a Blackbriar or Iron Hand agent enters an urban fray in the franchise, he’s referred to “the asset.”) Revenge narratives turn the chases into obligations. The closer we get to Bourne, the more ordinary and morose he appears. The wider the CIA becomes, the more it’s disconnected from Bourne, a veritable piece of agency folklore by 2016, and can only ply him with dutiful right wing ideology.

The new film is updated, yes -- Bourne must thwart GPS and malware and he garners nervous comparisons to Edward Snowden in the dialogue -- but the politics have receded into one of the oldest stories in existence: the hero’s quest to know his father, and, by extension, himself. Beyond that very traditional, very safe, and rather boring narrative decision, there’s another problem of parentage here -- that of the film itself.

The bad seed of this fruitless tree might well be franchise instincts clashing with the thematic context of the source material. Ludlum’s books arrived as Cold War / post-colonial espionage literature that defied the kind of essentialism to which these 21st century movies are committing. The writer even called his work novels of paranoia, not thrillers. Every shadow is a proxy for a nation. Every assassination is a private war. Everyone is implicated, regardless whether they know it.

The invention of Treadstone was a means of extracting the soul from combat. As Ludlum traded in an unheroic world, the point was not the the heart of darkness beating beneath the tension but the tension itself, a universe where you discover you’re someone’s unwitting, 30 million dollar plaything, not the mythological mate of evildoing. "We created a man who never was,” Abbott says of Bourne in the book series’ 1980 debut.

Jason Bourne has big shoulders. He can instantly revive a franchise’s bankability a decade after he was last seen playing dead in the East River. He can still fight-dance better than all the other expressionless hitmen around him. He is exhaustingly good at getting people to admit their crimes on tape. But carrying the burden of misinterpretation is too much; he can’t chart a hero’s journey conceived in a rat’s nest.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is a Portland-based arts and culture writer. He produces and co-hosts the weekly film podcast "Be Reel, Guys" and has written about movies, music and TV for Splitsider, Willamette Week, Cut Print Film, Hear Nebraska and more.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.