It’s never been easy being Jason Bourne: A brief film history

It’s hard to believe it’s been nine years since Matt Damon last suited up as the formidable but forgetful super-spy Jason Bourne. Now, he’s returning to his signature role, along with veteran director Paul Greengrass, for “Jason Bourne.”  The amnesiac super-agent, who first appeared in a series of Robert Ludlum books beginning in 1980, is always up for a challenge, as shown in the previous big screen outings. Here’s a brief history of Bourne to get you up to speed before the new film opens next Friday:

‘The Bourne Identity,’ 2002

Matt Damon and Franka Potente in "The Bourne Identity." (Egon Endrenyi / Universal Studios)
(Egon Endrenyi / Universal Studios )

After kicking around in development at Warner Bros. for a few years, Universal and director Doug Liman teamed for “The Bourne Identity.” Liman, known for the indie comedy “Swingers” and the manic rave comedy “Go,” was a bit of an unexpected choice for the action-heavy film, but he brought a youthful energy and a light touch, largely steering clear of political overtones. After several older, more established action stars flirted with the role, Bourne ended up being played by Damon, whose clean-cut charm belied a coiled ferocity underneath.  Audiences responded, sending the film past $200 million at the global box office, and announcing the arrival of a spy franchise that in many ways served as a more jolting alternative to the aging James Bond series. 

‘The Bourne Supremacy,’ 2004

Matt Damon in "The Bourne Supremacy." (Jasin Boland / Universal)
(Jasin Boland / Universal )

After the first film’s success, a sequel was put into high gear, with Liman replaced by Greengrass, who cut his teeth on British TV and the politically charged film “Bloody Sunday.” The director brought an even more kinetic feel to the proceedings, exemplified by a relentlessly shaky handheld camera and rapid-fire editing. “Supremacy” also upped Bourne’s physicality, having him bash his way through India, Western Europe and Russia after he’s framed for a crime. The sequel further distinguished the series from the slick look and feel of Bond films, which hit a low point with 2002’s silly “Die Another Day.” The 007 films would respond by taking a cue from the “Bourne” style in the 2006 reboot “Casino Royale.”

‘The Bourne Ultimatum,’ 2007

Matt Damon in "The Bourne Ultimatum." (Jasin Boland / Universal Studios)
(Jasin Boland / Universal Studios )

Things were a bit more complex in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” with Bourne being positioned in a proto-Snowden role, threatening to leak all the top secret intelligence that’s been coming back to him at a rate matching his ever-growing combat skills. He displays the latter in an escalating series of action scenes combining brute strength and high-tech know-how.  At first blush, “Ultimatum” seemed to be the closing chapter to the series, with both Damon and Greengrass expressing interest in moving on. However, its massive global take of more than $440 million ensured that it was hardly the franchise’s final word.

‘The Bourne Legacy,’ 2012

Jeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy." (Mary Cybulski / Universal Studios)
(Mary Cybulski / Universal Studios )

With Damon and Greengrass out, Universal made the somewhat surprising decision to produce a “Bourne” movie without Jason Bourne. Looking back, the “sidequel” film “The Bourne Legacy” seems more unnecessary than ever. It focused on a Bourne-like agent code-named Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, and took place during the events of “Bourne Supremacy.” Damon’s Bourne appeared in the film only in photographs and grainy surveillance videos, and Cross seemed like nothing more than the temp he was, although the film gave the great Joan Allen another chance to seethe in front of video monitors as a rogue spy ran circles around her operatives. However, audiences weren’t fooled by the faux-Bourne. The box office was significantly lower than its predecessors, and it wasn’t long before Universal was able to lure Damon and Greengrass back to “Bourne.” 

'Jason Bourne'