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What Is the Best Bourne Movie?

Revisiting the globe-hopping espionage franchise

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

On Thursday’s episode of The Watch, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald discussed their thoughts on the long-running Bourne film series, which releases its fifth installment, Jason Bourne, on Friday, July 29. For every episode of The Watch, check out the feed here. This transcript has been edited and condensed. Check out the entire episode here.

Andy Greenwald: Watching [the Bourne movies] over the course of their lifespan, they did seem to — and I think this can be an overrated thing to compliment in films or in culture in general — but they did seem to reflect the times in which they were made. The [first two Paul] Greengrass-[Matt] Damon movies really are held up as key post–9/11 texts, about America’s role in the world, about hard power, soft power, espionage. But the other thing is they were just fucking dope; they were really entertaining. They cast great actors in very cool roles, and they always underplayed the parts that other movies overplayed, and we loved them for it.

Chris Ryan: This franchise is not a monolith. I’ve been skipping through them over the week, and I was shocked by just how much Supremacy is the peak. I think Identity is by far the most enjoyable and surprising.

The intelligence of these movies can’t really be underrated. They came at a time when it did not feel like it was possible to find intellectual stimulation at a multiplex. Every once in a while, you would get something like Heat or Collateral or something like that — and I’m painting with a really wide brush here, but I remember distinctly seeing Identity and having zero expectations of that movie. Matt Damon was not a star at that time. In fact, I think his star was kind of on the way down; he had the Good Will Hunting run — I think he had been having trouble getting out of being Will Hunting.

A.G.: I also think people seemed very suspicious that he could play an action hero because that was not something that people thought he was capable of doing.

C.R.: I mean, I’m just looking at his credits here from what he was doing right before Bourne, and, you know, there’s not a lot. He’s at the end of Saving Private Ryan, Rounders is a cult classic but wasn’t really appreciated at the time, Talented Mr. Ripley is phenomenal but is not necessarily a Matt Damon movie, I don’t think. And then he does a bunch of crap like Legend of Bagger Vance and Finding Forrester and the historically damned All the Pretty Horses adaptation.

He comes in from Ocean’s Eleven [as] the third guy, he’s in Gerry, and nobody’s really sure what’s going on here, and then, bang, Bourne Identity in 2002, Bourne Supremacy, 2004, Ocean’s, and Syriana, The Departed, Good Shepherd, Ocean’s again, Bourne again. It’s been like that since then.

But this was a completely different kind of series. And I do think that the first one is probably the most purely entertaining one and that Legacy is probably the most underrated of them. You and I adore that film. In rewatching, I found myself not particularly enjoying Ultimatum, which is the second Greengrass movie.

A.G.: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s two ways to look at this. I think certain narratives that have carried coverage of these movies need to be reexamined, basically. Like, who are the winners and losers of this? Because for a long time, the narrative was Paul Greengrass — who is a brilliant technical director and has made great movies — he was the one who figured it out and made these movies the kinetic, smart action movies that they are. And that Doug Liman’s contribution to it is overlooked; [as is] Tony Gilroy, who wrote the scripts for all of them in one form or another — we’ll get into that — he directed Legacy, was not involved in Jason Bourne.

I think it’s time for a reconsideration of a lot of that, because I think that you’re right that Supremacy was peak Bourne, and I think seeing Greengrass — the quick cuts that he does, the kineticism of the camera, like it’s almost unsettling at times the way it moves so quickly — was really, really striking, groundbreaking in Supremacy. And I bet he wouldn’t agree with this, and I bet Tony Gilroy wouldn’t agree with this, but sometimes amazing things happen when people don’t get along, basically.

C.R.: I think you could make a real argument that in a world that didn’t care about money, this should have just been a two-movie series. That you do Identity, you do Supremacy, and the end of Supremacy is a perfect ending for this character. Ultimatum was a little bit of a grind, I thought it was almost avant-garde in how shaky-cam it was.

I wonder whether or not Legacy could have been something much bigger if there had been some tacit acknowledgement … like if Damon and Greengrass had signed off on it. Maybe there was a Bourne cameo in it, and maybe the next Bourne film could be something that [Jeremy] Renner and Damon were in together. There’s not a whole lot going on in Ultimatum, and you can kind of feel the wheels grinding there. Nor was there apparently a screenplay that they could use; that’s what Damon said.

A.G.: The question of “Why are they doing it again?” is an interesting one and a tough one. I don’t think they answered it correctly. It’s a problem that runs through modern action movies: Origin stories are not as interesting as people think they are. And the heart of these movies — who is this guy — you know what, it doesn’t really matter after a certain point. There are other questions to ask in the universe, especially when you’re willing to deal with a world that is this paranoid, this surveilled, this dangerous, this fraught as the world in these movies is.