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How the Jason Bourne films influenced modern entertainment
The Bourne Identity was released in June 2002 and was a box office and critical success, but was far from a smash hit. Instead it planted seeds that grew and sprouted with its sequels The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and the recent The Bourne Legacy (which lacked the franchise’s usual protagonist Jason Bourne and lead actor Matt Damon), and changed the action genre for years to come.
The film was a very loose adaptation of the classic spy novel of the same name, the date, settings, narratives and character relationships are largely different, so for the purpose of this essay, they are largely separate entities.
A very modern setting, realistic tone, fast paced and brutal action, the Bourne franchise put new life in the spy genre, which was long since dominated by James Bond. A few months after the release of The Bourne Identity, Die Another Day was released and seemed immediately preposterous and almost quaint in comparison (which wasn’t helped by the fact that Die Another Day is arguably the worst of all the Bond films, even to this day) and almost killed off the Bond series were it not for a major reinvention, one heavily influenced by the Bourne films (more on this later).
The series really took off with the sequels, out went Doug Liman and in came Paul Greengrass, bringing a vision to the series that most people associate with it (?), a vision retained when Paul Greengrass was replaced by Tony Gilroy for the fourth instalment The Bourne Legacy.
The Bourne films are shot in a very naturalistic style (in particular the films directed by Paul Greengrass) much more like a documentary than other films of the genre, due to Greengrass’ experiences working with docudramas (such as Bloody Sunday and United 93), films that stress realism and authenticity instead of slick cinematography. (example?). Such shots add to the verisimilitude of the film, making the audience feel that this isn’t just an action film that they are watching, but a glimpse into a secret world of conspiracy and assassination.
The films make good use of international locations, showing them in a realistic way as opposed to a travelogue. For example, in the third film The Bourne Ultimatum, there is a sequence set in London, rather than using this as an excuse to film outside a number of iconic London landmarks as might be expected in such a film, instead they shoot in a number of fairly ordinary locations, with the most famous being Waterloo Station which is shown as busy and chaotic as it is in reality. This gives the effect of making the locations seem all the more real and grounded.
The shots are usually close to the action and feel as if they were shot with handheld cameras, the editing usually fast and rhythmic to what’s on screen. However the biggest stylistic impression these films was with the use of “shaky cam” on the action sequences, particular hand to hand fight scenes. If done well, (as is the case in with Bourne) it creates a feeling of intensity and complements the onscreen violence by providing extra impact and helps place the viewer not only in the scene but in the fight itself, they feel like a participant and thus it becomes all the more visceral. However if done poorly, (as is the case with Quantum of Solace) it becomes messy, disorientating and confusing to the viewers, negatively affecting their enjoyment of the film, some viewers have even complained about experiencing motion sickness.
One of the more popular aspects of the franchise are the hand to hand fight sequences, where speed and effectiveness are placed above style or appearance, using self defence methods such as Jeet Kune Do (a style designed and popularised by Bruce Lee), some Krav Maga and Pilipino Kali. As a result the scenes are often that extra bit more brutal and authentic as opposed to choreographed. Furthermore there is some notable use of improvised weapons (for example: using a pen or a rolled up magazine) which creates the impression that Bourne is an extremely skilled and dangerous fighter. Shortly after the Bourne films gained popularity a number of different action films began using similar substance over style fight sequences, such as Casino Royale or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Whilst the Bourne films were by no means the first films to use similar combat styles, there were some of the first to do so as effectively and in mainstream Hollywood cinema (with the hyper stylised kung fu of the Matrix films being the previous model for on screen fighting). The intensity of the sequences is built even further with the use of the aforementioned “shaky cam”.
One film series with clear but rather unexpected links to the Bourne series (especially the fighting) is Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films,which portray the classic detective as an extremely skilled fighter. This idea links to the original Conan Doyle stories as Holmes is described as a skilled amateur boxer and a master of Baritsu (a fictional style that may be based on the martial art Bartitsu which emerged in London at a similar time). The choreography of the fight sequences is incredibly similar, including the use of improvised weaponry (for example throwing a towel at an opponent’s face as a method of distraction).
Whilst most definitely not exclusive to Bourne, but still none the less relevant is the overarching storyline and the slow reveal and detailing of the corrupt government agency behind the protagonist. Usually the agency (for example MI6 for the James Bond films) may have shady elements but is ultimately a force for good. The same cannot be said with Bourne, where government officials are fully complicit in not only the assassination of terrorists, but also anyone who might cause trouble, for example in The Bourne Ultimatum a British journalist is assassinated as he had discovered details of the conspiracy.
What is unusual is that all the Bourne movies were made in succession without any plans for sequels (The Bourne Identity is very self contained), so it is a remarkable achievement that it works so well.
The Reinvention of an Icon
By far the biggest franchise affected by the Bourne films is the James Bond series with Bourne acting as both its killer and saviour. The release of The Bourne Identity made the increasingly more bizarre and outlandish Bond films immediately look quite backward, like a relic of a bygone era relentlessly clinging to life, ignoring the changing times. It was clear that something had to change. There is a certain cycle to it, as Jason Bourne, the original literary character might have been inspired by James Bond, and now James Bond is inspired by Jason Bourne.
The entire Bond continuity was rebooted and modernised, signified by the change of actor from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig and the first film, Casino Royale, a loose adaptation of the first Bond novel, starting at the beginning of James Bond’s 007 career, essentially wiping the slate clean of everything that came before.
However just as Jason Bourne killed the Bond franchise, it also brought it back. Much like the Bourne movies, the new James Bond was grounded, gritty and much more believable (many fans of the James Bond novels found Craig’s performance much closer to the character as written by Ian Fleming. I am unable to compare as I am unfamiliar with Fleming’s work). It still retained many of the franchise’s core conventions, the stunning global locations, the familiar score, animated opening credits, the “Bond girl”, etc. Whilst eliminating other aspects such as exotic gadgets which sent the franchise into science fiction, particularly with Die Another Day’s invisible car.
The onscreen violence, in particular hand to hand fight scenes, had increased in brutality with this reinvention. The scenes much more resembled the fights in Bourne than in any prior Bond film, with efficiency focused over style. This became more apparent when the second film in the new Bond continuity was released (Quantum of Solace) which used (some would say overused) the hand held style “shaky camera” aesthetic for its action sequences.
The most recent Bond film Skyfall, is much closer to the classic Bond films in terms of style and appearance than the prior two films, whilst retaining the modern flavour. It used Bourne to inject new life into the franchise, which is ever developing.
Other similar works
Since the success of the Bourne series, a number of other films and franchises have appeared in response, or have tried to capitalise on it. Films such as Salt, Haywire and Hanna are all quite similar in terms of style, tone and setting to Bourne. Also note that all of those example films have female protagonists, perhaps as a way to establish itself in the very male dominated Spy genre (most of the marketing of Salt, sold it as a “female Bourne”). Furthermore Salt was clearly made with sequels in mind (although this has not come to pass) and would have likely revealed more about the protagonist’s past and the forces behind them, much like the Bourne films did.
Furthermore the 2011 film Unknown is thematically and stylistically similar to Bourne and has a highly similar narrative. The protagonists of both works are assassins suffering from amnesia (something only discovered in the third act, the rest of the film is comfortably detached from the Bourne franchise), both films make good use of European locations (Berlin, the setting for Unknown was also used in The Bourne Supremacy). Like Bourne, Unknown uses the city in such a way so it makes it appear more grounded and real with none of the city’s landmarks making an appearance. Both works are adaptations of earlier novels. There is no doubt that this film was created to capitalise on Bourne’s success, and the unexpected success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller Taken (which is also highly reminiscent of Bourne).
Bourne has not only affected other films, a number of TV shows, comics and videogames have all used elements and styles associated with Bourne, and were clearly inspired by it. One such example is the 2010 video game Splinter Cell: Convictions, where the Bourne like elements were so far reaching that it even went against and betrayed some of the franchise’s core conventions, such as a detailed and deep stealth based game play which was removed in favour of more action focused gameplay.
In it players play as returning protagonist Sam Fisher, on the run and looking for the truth about his daughter’s apparent death. However the visual style, animations (the only hand to hand combat in the prior games was limited to one punch knockouts, in Conviction it was replaced by full animations of attacks using the Krav Maga self defence style.
Of course, there were a multitude of films similar to Bourne that came much before, some likely even inspiring the Bourne series itself, although some might have been inspired by the Ludlum Bourne novels, most definitely the 1996 film The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the Belgian comic series (also adapted to a videogame) XIII both ofwhich have remarkably similar premises (an amnesiac with a former life as a highly trained assassin). The Bourne films have taken any of those lessons from things which inspired it, and packaged them into something quite original, particular in regards to mainstream action cinema. And of course all of this is entirely interpretation.
The Real World
The Bourne series (both the films and the some of the books) were inspired by the Iran Contra affair where the arms were sold by the US government to Iran in the midst of an arms embargo so to potentially facilitate a number of US hostages and to fund the Nicaraguan paramilitary group The Contras. It demonstrated to the public that the government was actively engaged in illegal and unethical behaviour that was (for a time) completely hidden from view.
However in 2001 another event happened which shook the world to the core, changing it in every aspect from international relations to mainstream cinema. 9/11 and the events, practices and conflicts which followed it, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Taliban and in particular the holding and torture of terrorist suspects had a profound impact on the public and the entertainment sold to them. The Bourne films were the first to show the world to what it might change to if things kept changing. Light and harmless films that the action genre had produced for years suddenly looked dated, or at worst childish and naïve. The Bourne films were a refreshing but alarming eye opener.
Also consider the impact a film which had elements of the US government as the primary antagonists of a film released just over a year after the biggest attack on the country in its history. It was a time of high patriotism, and at the beginning of a major conflict. It was a remarkably risky and brave thing to do. Yet seemingly quite prophetic of practices by the government years after the film’s release, that of remote controlled drones designed to attack unknowing suspects in the air, including US citizens such as Anwar Al-Awlaki and his son.
It is important here to stress the differences between the Bourne books and the film series. In the novels (the first and third in particular) the primary antagonist was a real figure, the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal and not his former spymasters as is the case in the films soo it is interesting to consider that the films could have easily had the movie-Bourne hunting a terrorist figure and would have been slightly closer to the source material (pleasing its many fans who see the two as separate entities) and would have been a safer story to tell in 2002. The producers not doing so is interesting. Of course the film would have been mostly produced by the time 9/11 happened and would have almost certainly affected it’s release, it is remarkable that the film was released in such a climate in the first place.
The films influenced by the Bourne films were more influenced by the way it was incredibly modern and how it fit the zeitgeist than they were trying to copy its success. Demonstrating that studios place the ability to fit the times they’re in and remain current, quite highly, often to unusual and unexpected effects (note the fourth Die Hard film’s strange decision to focus on cyber terrorism, something the protagonist is very much unable to deal with).
In recent years Bourne’s impact has diminished somewhat with mainstream cinema favouring effects-heavy blockbusters such as the Transformers franchise or The Avengers, or call backs to eighties and nineties cinema with the popularity of the Expendables films, homages to over-the-top 1980’s action movies and numerous remakes of 1980’s films such as the recent Total Recall. What this might demonstrate is that whilst the ability to remain current is very important, cinema’s gift for providing methods of escapism is paramount. Films such as Bourne might have begun to look uncomfortably real as new events and policies pass. Note the most recent Bourne film Legacy’s slight deviation into science fiction with the characters taking pills increasing strength, agility and mental processes (highly reminiscent of Captain America’s super soldier serum), and having the characters not be interested in exposing the shady operations and dealings the government was involved in such as Treadstone (as done in The Bourne Identity) and Blackbriar (Supremacy and Ultimatum).