Why Jason Bourne Doesn’t Stand Up to the Trilogy

A lot of people say that Jason Bourne is just like all the other movies in the series. I understand what they mean. Jason Bourne follows the same basic plot as the other movies in the quadrilogy and there are a number of sequences in Bourne movies we see again and again. However, even though the majority of films are directed by Paul Greengrass, just because a movie mimics the same scenes we’ve seen before, doesn’t mean all the scenes are equally good. There is a variation in quality and innovation from Bourne movie to Bourne movie. So I’ve broken down four of the most common types of sequences you see in Bourne movies and looked at the best and worst to help illustrate why Jason Bourne doesn’t work as well as its predecessors. (Please note: I’m just going to ignore The Bourne Legacy. K? OK.)

1. Car Chases

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The Bourne Supremacy – Moscow Car Chase

In every Bourne movie, there is a car chase of some kind. Let’s start with the one that works the best: The Bourne Supremacy.

The first thing to note is the setup for the chase. Bourne is wounded and must not only evade the police and the asset (Karl Urban) while he drives, but he must also treat his wound as well. This heightens our tension while watching the scene because we understand that Bourne is at more of a disadvantage than usual. We get subtle reminders of the wound as well like when he shifts or steers and we see a bloodied hand.

The other thing to note here is that the movement of the scene rarely stops or even slows down. Even when Bourne’s car is hit on the passenger side by a police car, Bourne is quickly back in motion. This helps make the scene feel like a genuine chase; like Bourne is trying desperately to get away. We get a sense of this desperation in some of Bourne’s maneuvers like in the tunnel when he’s rubbing against cars and shoving them out of his way.

The music also greatly helps the tension of the scene. If you listen to the tempo of the music when the chase starts it is much slower, but by the scene’s climax it is rivetingly faster.

And although this is a minor thing, the fact that Bourne is driving a manual car that requires shifting makes the chase more exciting as well. As you’ll see with the automatic cars in the other movies, showing the pedal work is less interesting to cut between.

Finally, as far as Bourne movies go this chase scene reasonably is clear about perspective (whereby the placing of the camera indicates who’s perspective we’re viewing the scene from, or about to view the scene from) and the direction of action.

Look at the sequence of shots where the asset finally catches up with Bourne. First, we get a glimpse of the face of the asset. This indicates that the next shot we will be seeing from his perspective.

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Then the camera is placed inside the car (somewhere behind the asset’s shoulder) and looking out the window where we see the taxi Bourne is driving, which clearly indicates the directions both vehicles are going.

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This way, when the collision occurs we know what to expect.

Paying attention to who’s perspective we’re viewing a shot from, and which direction the action is going is very tricky to do in a Bourne movie because there are so many cuts and they happen so quickly. But try and think about it as you watch this scene, then use it as a comparison for the following chase scenes to see why this chase scene from The Bourne Supremacy is a little more clear.

The Bourne Ultimatum – New York Chase

Now let’s look at a chase scene from the Bourne movies that doesn’t work as well.

For starters, there is an awful lot of cars smashing into each other in this sequence. Every time this happens we lose the momentum of the chase because we have to stop and start again.

Another problem (although this is fairly minor) is that since this is an automatic car we get a lot of shots of Bourne smashing the brake or gas pedals, which is less engaging than the shifting we saw in the The Bourne Supremacy chase.

The largest problem in the chase sequence, however, is the perspective of the camera and the direction of action between shots.

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Notice the direction of action in the above shot. The asset (Edgar Ramírez) is in a medium shot heading left.

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We then get this shot of Bourne in a similar medium shot (just a slightly different angle), but reversed, heading to the right. Where is the asset in relation to Bourne? Is he driving right at him? It is unclear. All we can assume is that he’s not directly behind him.

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Now let’s look at when the asset reappears. We see him move outside of his window to take a shot. Where did he come from? We don’t know until the next sequence of shots indicates that Bourne is getting hit on his driver’s side window because he ducks as the glass shatters.

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Sure enough, the next series of shots indicates that the asset is approaching on Bourne’s left and aimed at his driver-side window.

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The asset accelerates (I think) and pushes the car in front of him into Bourne’s trunk, forcing Bourne to spin. We get the spin from a few different angles and perspectives (which is a little disorienting).

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Then we get the perspective of the car that the asset hit into Bourne, and the perspective we see is facing the front left headlight, so we can see this car smash from that angle.

This headlight perspective from the car is discombobulating because it’s not something we would expect and it comes after we get three angles of the same car crash.

It’s decisions like these that weaken the scene and diminish the tension of the chase. How can we be invested if we’re not sure what’s happening?

Jason Bourne – Motorcycle Chase

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The sequence leading up to (and including) the motorcycle chase is the best part of Jason Bourne. It has stakes, it has rising tension, and it has reasonably clear perspective and direction of action (again, for a Bourne movie).

The first thing that helps the scene is that is connected to another sequence where we watch Nicky (Julia Stiles) attempt to evade authorities while Bourne tries to get to her. If you’ve seen the previous movies in the series we know nicky doesn’t have combat skills, so our tension for this motorcycle chase is already high because we’re worried about Nicky.

The other great foundation for the tension in this chase is the set up: Bourne is on a motorcycle so he’s more exposed. This is accentuated by the fact that there is a city-wide riot going on around them and Molotov cocktails are getting thrown all around them.

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Additionally, the layers of threat and the switching between them amplifies the chase scene’s tension. There are three main perspectives in the chase: Bourne’s, the asset’s (Vincent Cassel), and CIA headquarters (Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones). When we switch between Bourne and the CIA (though the cuts are fairly fast) our tension increases because we can’t see what’s happening with Bourne. It also helps that the CIA can see exactly where Bourne is going and can communicate that to the asset, placing Bourne at a further disadvantage.

There’s another chase sequence in the film, but it is weaker because it lacks purpose. In it, Bourne chases the asset through the streets of Las Vegas. Why is Bourne chasing the asset? We’re not sure. Why is the asset who swore that he would kill Bourne running away from him? We’re not sure about that either. This lack of purpose undercuts the entire sequence, which isn’t helped by the previous, meandering hour of little action.

2. Hand-to-hand Fight Sequences

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I’m not going to hold up Bourne movies as the ideal example of how to do hand-to-hand fight sequences, that honour is up for debate. However, I think we can take a look at some of the elements of Bourne movie fights and see what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s the first fight from The Bourne Identity. Notice how there’s a predator/prey element to the fight. There is often an exchange of moves, a brief escape from the encounter by Bourne, a pause, and then the asset (Nicky Naudé) attacks again. This fight actually has a rhythm and nearly every single strike is clear. This movie also started the trend of Bourne using the Jackie Chan-esque style of defense of using common objects as weapons (though not for comedic purposes).

Now let’s look at more problematic fight sequence from The Bourne Supremacy.

If you aren’t watching this closely, I suspect the hand-held camera won’t be too distracting. But once I tell you to pay attention to it, try watching the scene again. The camera moves up and down like a boat on the water. I can barely stand to watch it. Sometimes the camera moves to accentuate an action being made. Sometimes it appears to bob for no particular reason. We also miss a lot of hits because of the camera’s placement in relation to the actors.

This scene starkly contrasts the clarity of The Bourne Identity‘s fight.

Then there’s the fight sequence from The Bourne Ultimatum which I see as a blending of the previous two films.

Like the motorcycle chase in Jason Bourne, this fight sequence has added tension because it is on the back of a situation where Nicky is being hunted by the asset (Joey Ansah) while Bourne is trying to track the both of them. That opening shot to the fight where Bourne jumps through the glass is electrifying. There’s a reason we saw that shot in all the promos — it’s badass.

It doesn’t quite have as strong a rhythm as the fight in The Bourne Identity, but it does briefly pause on certain actions so we can see those attacks more clearly.

The Ultimatum fight also has a ferocity the previous two fights don’t seem to have. The Identity fight feels very controlled, almost like the combatants are trying to stay in proper form as the fight progresses. And while the Supremacy fight has a spirit that is just as mean, there’s a fumbling quality to it since the asset has his hands tied half the time. Also, there are more hits that we see in the Ultimatum fight where we think, “that looked like it hurt,” like when Bourne uses a book to punch the asset in the neck.

The latest installment, Jason Bourne, does have a hand-to-hand fight, but it is the shortest of the four movies and is built off the end of the car chase that lacked purpose and tension. Because of Bourne’s earlier scenes in the movie that show him fighting in underground fighting rings, the fight with the asset is more a slugfest. The fight is dimly lit as it is in a garbage-filled underground garage. And the camera spends an awful lot of time on the men’s faces.

3. Tracking Bourne

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A staple of the Bourne movies is a sequence where Bourne is being pursued and he walks steadily and purposefully to avoid capture. He doesn’t run (I assume) because he doesn’t want to attract attention to himself. He walks briskly.

A slight variation on this sequence is a scene where Bourne is either directing someone else who is being tracked or trying to acquire someone who is being tracked.

No matter the type, these sequences are some of best executed across all the films. They also seem to innovate a little each time, making a slight variation that makes these sequences better.

To demonstrate how these scenes work, let’s take a look at the “Tracking Bourne” sequence from The Bourne Identity when Bourne is caught unexpectedly in the American embassy he must improvise an escape.

Whenever you have a movie about a superhuman person, whether it is a genius or a super assassin, it is important to draw the audience in to understand what the protagonists are thinking. The Bourne Identity excels at this.

Notice how Bourne’s actions are slow so we can see them and think about them. When he hits a guard in the nuts and tosses him down the stairs we see Bourne begin to walk away, then decide to go back and take the guard’s earpiece so he can listen to the coordination efforts against him. We even get audio of this later when Bourne walks in front of a giant number two on the wall and we hear, “Bravo unit on staircase, proceeding to second floor,” which causes Bourne to go up the stairs instead of down. We see him grab the fire evacuation map to look for an alternative way out of the building, and he lingers when he checks to see what floor he’s on. This is so the audience has time to see what Bourne is doing and to process in a way that makes them think they could have made these logical decisions themselves.

The later films make excellent variations on the Tracking Bourne sequences, like in The Bourne Ultimatum:

By adding a civilian and making them part of Bourne being tracked, we get added tension because the civilian is so scared he makes mistakes and Bourne has to compensate.

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The latest movie, Jason Bourne, has a pretty good Tracking Bourne sequence near the motorcycle chase. The variation here is that he and Nicky and forced to separate, leaving Nicky alone and vulnerable with agents closing in on her.

Later, though, there is probably the weakest Tracking Bourne sequence in all the films, when Bourne is trying to acquire Malcolm Smith so he can interrogate Smith about his Father. I think this scene tries to build sympathy with one of the head agents tracking Bourne, Heather (Alicia Vikander), who helps Bourne for her own reasons in the movie. The teams that are tracking Bourne (under Heather’s direction) are killed by the asset. And we don’t care about Malcolm Smith like we do the civilian from The Bourne Ultimatum, or Nicky from the other movies, both of whom Bourne tracks in similar sequences. Because we don’t care about the teams being eliminated, or the target, the sequence becomes a kind of rote reproduction of the Tracking Bourne sequence rather than and engaging one.

4. The Final Confrontation

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In every Bourne movie, there is a guy in charge. He is typically amoral and knows something about Bourne’s past that he does not. These sequences are near the climax of the film because most of these movies are about Bourne trying to find out about his past.

There’s nothing typically remarkable about these scenes. They’re filled with telling the audience what we need to know about Bourne’s past. Then Bourne doesn’t kill the guy in charge to show the audience that, despite all the people Bourne has killed in the movie so far, he’s a pretty good guy overall. But somehow the guy gets killed anyway because the audience wants bad guys to lose.

What makes these scenes interesting is that they are often the source of information we are chasing the whole movie. We want to find out (along with Bourne) how he became a super assassin. It’s what we are told is the reason for the movie; to solve a mystery.

The first three Bourne movies are all variations of The Bourne Identity scene:

Bourne catches the guy in charge, interrogates the guy in charge, and learns something new.

So why doesn’t this same scene in Jason Bourne work?

The reason this scene is weak is because there’s no mystery to be solved. There’s really no reason for Bourne to catch CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). The CIA’s covert assassin program Treadstone led to Blackbriar, and Blackbriar led to Iron Hand. Killing Dewey won’t stop more programs from starting. And there’s nothing Dewey tells Bourne about his past that we don’t know already. So why does this scene happen?

Because this is what we do near the end of Bourne movies. And what is wrong with this scene stands as an example for what is wrong with Jason Bourne as a whole. It looks like a Bourne movie, it has the same scenes as a Bourne movie, but much of it is hollowed out; empty. Like the movie gutted out its predecessors and is dancing around wearing its skin, hoping you won’t notice.

But I see you, Jason Bourne.

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