Beginning in 2002, the Bourne franchise helped reinvent the action movie. It changed the way that some of these movies were shot and edited, opting for shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing, which in theory made audiences feel like the action on the screen was more immediate and more impactful—when in reality it was easier for the actors who didn’t have to do much fight choreography, since we’d only see blurs and brief segments anyway. While not the first movies to use this formula, they popularized it—especially for action movies. The shaky camerawork got worse after the first chapter when director Paul Greengrass took over.
But the Bourne movies, for the most part, were well-received. I like three of them a lot and tolerate the other two. Do I want more? Not especially, but I’ll admit that the prospect of a crossover film between Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner (remember how he did one of these?) is intriguing.
Here is my ranking of the Bourne movies.
The Bourne Legacy
After it was determined with some level of certainty that Matt Damon was done with the Bourne franchise (until he wasn’t), the filmmakers decided that the brand name would be enough to sell tickets and made The Bourne Legacy, which followed Jeremy Renner as a different enhanced secret agent. It also eliminated the shaky-cam, but one has to chalk that up to a different director making the movie.
The plot is dull and 75% of it sees Renner’s character going through various processes in order to procure drugs he needs in order to stay “enhanced.” But since the movie never actually shows the regression when he doesn’t take them—and there are times he goes lengthy periods without—it matters very little. There isn’t much action, none of the new characters are very interesting, and the plot is repetitive and dull. When The Bourne Legacy finally starts to get going, it’s over—setting up interest in a sequel it looks like we’ll never get. It was meant to reignite the franchise, but it failed.
Almost a decade after The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon decided he wanted another big Bourne paycheck and returned to what’s probably his most famous role. Jason Bourne feels like a watered-down version of the original trilogy, seeing Bourne become involved in another corruption conspiracy and having to single-handedly take it all down.
The plot is largely irrelevant. We’re here for the action scenes, which are close to as good as they have always been. It doesn’t really have much to it beyond that, honestly, but that’s all it needs to be passable. We’ve already established Bourne as a (non-)character, so just giving him different scenarios that feel familiar is all a decade-later sequel is going to need to be watchable. Its lack of plot is what stops it from being any better than that, but it could’ve been far worse.
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Supremacy is a simpler movie than both its predecessor and successor. It’s got the most basic plot—a rather standard revenge story. This is where things begin to get shakier, in terms of the camerawork, that is. Where it lacks is in the character department. Now that Bourne doesn’t have as much of the whole “amnesia” thing going on … he becomes kind of boring. And since Marie is gone for most of the film, he’s got nobody to play off. It’s just watching an unstoppable assassin do unstoppable assassin stuff. Fun, sure, but not as compelling.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a lot of fun. The action we get is strong, even if it helped inspire a lot of terrible copycats in the years that followed. It’s a good movie and I enjoy it, but it’s the weakest of the original trilogy.
The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Identity kicked off the Bourne franchise in 2002, and probably has the most engaging plot out of all the movies—in large part because we don’t yet know that Bourne isn’t really that interesting. He opens the film confused about where he is and who he is, much like the audience. We’re put in his headspace immediately. It’s more of a mystery movie than the action movies the rest of the franchise turned out to be, and the plot is compelling.
We want to find out who he is and why he has a particular set of skills that allow him to quickly and accurately survey a room and then, if necessary, kill everyone in it. We want to see his relationship with Marie (Franka Potente) develop. We’re in awe of the realistic approach to the film’s action.
If it has a big problem, it’s an anti-climactic conclusion. Of course, that gets to lead us directly into its sequel.
The Bourne Ultimatum
Conclusions to trilogies typically benefit from more of an emotional heft than their predecessors, since you know that (there’s a good chance) this is the end for the characters, since you’re not likely going to get more films with them. And for almost a decade, this was the end to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne.
Jason Bourne finally gets a semblance of a conclusion in Ultimatum, which begins as a direct sequel to Supremacy. It eventually morphs into a satisfying conclusion to Jason Bourne’s story. It has the best action of the series, it gives Bourne a good secondary character to play off—much like Superman, this is necessary since he’s not terribly interesting beyond the whole “memory loss” thing—and it does have the inherent boost that comes from being the “finale.” It’s really solid, and it’s the best movie of the franchise.