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The Battle for Jason Bourne

The behind-the-scenes struggles that shaped the spy series

Matt Damon, Tony Gilroy, and Paul Greengrass (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Matt Damon, Tony Gilroy, and Paul Greengrass (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The $60 million opening-weekend domestic box office return for Jason Bourne suggests that the fifth film in the franchise gave people what they wanted. It also might suggest that Suicide Squad isn’t out yet. Beyond the box office, though, Jason Bourne says a lot about how its two main filmmakers — producer/director/cowriter Paul Greengrass and star/producer Matt Damon — feel about Jason Bourne.

The promo-tour origin myth for Jason Bourne is that Damon, while shooting Elysium in Vancouver in 2011, saw the neighboring production offices of The Bourne Legacy, the Damon-less attempt at rebooting the franchise and expanding the Bourne universe beyond its namesake. This stirred something in Damon, who recently told The New York Times, “I thought I was completely at peace with the three movies [2002’s The Bourne Identity, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum] and I was so happy with how good they were and what the whole franchise had done for my career and my life. … But when I saw their production offices, it hurt me in a way that surprised me.”

A tug of the heartstrings. And maybe a tug of the purse strings. Damon told GQ in 2011 that Bourne was his safety blanketthe franchise that allowed him to experiment and ride out box office failures, because at the end of the day he could always go back. In 2011, Damon was still some years away from delighting millions by seasoning his potatoes with Vicodin on Mars. Nobody was seeing his good movies (Behind the Candelabra, Margaret), and nobody liked his big movies (The Adjustment Bureau, We Bought a Zoo). He was making Elysium. HE KNEW. It should come as no surprise that he got the itch.

In that same 2011 GQ feature, Damon infamously went “Hit ’Em Up” on regular Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy. He knocked Gilroy for agitating for a shared screenwriting credit on the first film, and he accused Gilroy of turning in an “unreadable” script for the third installment, claiming it was “a career-ender. I mean, I could put this thing up on eBay and it would be game over for that dude. It’s terrible. It’s really embarrassing.”

Damon’s return to the series was conditional. To resume his role in front of the camera, Paul Greengrass, director of Ultimatum and Supremacy, would have to return to his spot behind it. The cowriter and director of that Bourne film shooting next door in Vancouver was Tony Gilroy. The story at the time was that Universal and Greengrass couldn’t unlock a fourth Bourne movie, Greengrass walked, and Gilroy swooped in with an idea that worked for the studio and the estate of Robert Ludlum, the author of the novels on which the series is based. So there you have the Bourne church schism.

Assigning credit for the success or failure of a movie is tricky because it’s so hard to know what really goes on in writers’ bungalows, editing suites, actors’ trailers, and studio boardrooms. It’s sort of a miracle when things actually work. And that’s exactly how I would describe the first two films of this series. Miracles.

The Bourne Identity is basically Before Sunrise with hand-to-hand combat. In a wonderful New Yorker profile, Gilroy explained his vision for the first film as “action with intimacy,” and that’s exactly what you see on screen: car chases through Paris mixed with real human moments in small hotel rooms.

The sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, is the best film of the series. The filmmakers knew the character and the world (even if the character still didn’t totally know himself), and Greengrass brought a distinctive, fresh look — handheld, cinema vérité, placing characters in real-world locations, and giving action a real-world feel. It led to a highly stylized realism rarely seen in Hollywood blockbusters.

In a 2002 interview after the release of Identity, Matt Damon said, “By and large the average movie is just derivative. And sure, derivative action movies are something that’s successful — because if people are going to buy widgets then people are going to try and sell them widgets — but I think that it’s a lot more fun for audiences and for filmmakers to make something other than a widget.”

After The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne became a widget. Ultimatum, unreadable script aside, picks up right after Supremacy ends and kicks the can down the road, re-creating scenes (Jason Bourne calls someone while looking at them through a telescope, reveals that he is watching them, boom, roasted), and abandoning human moments — even gestural ones — among its characters. There is no Karl Urban, no Franka Potente, no farmhouse, no running on the beach in Goa, no fixing a bullet wound with items found in a Moscow supermarket. If you wanted to know how many movies you can make about an assassin with amnesia on the trail of his past, the answer is two. You can make two movies.

No one seemed to mind, though. The film grossed $227 million domestically, made more than $400 million globally, and gave Matt Damon the kind of fuck-you money that allowed him to make The Informant! without having to worry about the consequences.

The tagline for The Bourne Legacy was, “Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg.” It was cowritten and directed by a man who once said, “In my fantasy, my life would be, I’ll write for dough and I’ll try to make Crimes and Misdemeanors every year-and-a-half or two years,” and it absolutely feels like someone making a Crimes and Misdemeanors that cost a lot of money. The Bourne Legacy made a profit, but was seen as a commercial failure. People look at me like I have something on my face when I talk about this movie, but I think it’s a minor masterpiece (the first two acts, at least) that is best understood as a series of vignettes about the world around the Bourne character.

So: vaguely erotic scenes of nu-Bourne Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, eating dinner in a snow-bound cabin with his maybe-assassin, played by Oscar Isaac; a harrowing workplace shooting; a flashback foray to the Iraq War; an unexpected immersion into pharmaceutical production in the Philippines; jargon-heavy, witty, and perfectly acted ensemble moments of various intelligence brass verbally jousting with one another (this is from the guy who directed Michael Clayton, after all). Even if these vignettes never quite coalesce, they still act as an exhibit of what Gilroy liked about this world: the office politics, the minor social interactions between coworkers, the subtle power plays that happen before and after control shifts from one character to another.

Jason Bourne has none of that. It is two chase scenes with a movie stapled onto it. There is nothing in The Bourne Legacy that even approaches the kinetic brilliance of Jason Bourne’s opening chase — a nighttime motorcycle ride through an Athens in turmoil, with flaming couches flying off of roofs. But only days after seeing it, I can’t remember a single conversation or non-set-piece moment from the entire film.

Instead, we get a hammer-headed plot about Bourne’s father, and a totally separate movie about the CIA strong-arming a Facebook stand-in company.

When the film opens, Jason Bourne is bare-knuckle fighting in Greece. It looks like it sucks. This is the movie Greengrass and Damon wanted to make. Matt Damon recently told USA Today, “If the movie starts and it looks like I’ve been living well, we don’t have a movie. But if the first image looks like I’ve suffered, it’s a statement of intent to our audience — that we’re coming with everything we have.”

What a strange thing to think. Who watches a new Jason Bourne movie and thinks, “Man, I hope he has been suffering”?

Sequels reveal taste. What interests some people about a movie may not interest others. The tricky part is when “others” includes the filmmakers. In the 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, no one was spending their time thinking, “Galactic tariffs? Senate procedure? I NEED TO KNOW.” No one except George Lucas, that is. His taste was bland and inscrutable, but at least it was his. We got the movie he wanted to see. In the age of extreme fan service [puts a gloved hand on Darth Vader’s melted helmet], that kind of stubborn adherence to one’s own vision is respectable.

There is a brief moment in Jason Bourne, early on, when Damon has an interaction with Julia Stiles’s long-suffering Nicky Parsons character. Parsons has gone from being a CIA logistics expert to a leak, working with a Julian Assange–type crusader named Christian Dassault. There is some vague allusion to Bourne helping Parsons in the past with these leaks, but then it is dropped.

Right there. That’s Tony Gilroy’s movie: What if Jason Bourne became Edward Snowden? He hinted at it with The Bourne Legacy. What if he were part of a larger world? What an interesting idea. Instead, we get Jason Bourne searching for the truth about his dad? And he is being chased by very patriotic American assassin Vincent Cassel, who is French as shit? And Alicia Vikander’s and Riz Ahmed’s characters know each other from Stanford, but fuck it, shouldn’t we drive a car through a casino?

Greengrass and Damon have a punishing, chaotic, almost entirely physical vision of Bourne. The dialogue in Jason Bourne is so bad it feels like a subliminal dis of Gilroy and his vision of the Bourne-verse as a place where smart, witty people get utterly corrupted by their own sense of purpose.

The three of them might not always get along, but they definitely need one another. Together, they made The Bourne Supremacy. Their taste was perfect.