The Bourne Trilogy
By necessity, this post will contain certain SPOILERS about the Bourne trilogy of books and films. Read at your own risk.
Having seen The Bourne Ultimatum upon its release earlier this month, and having since rewatched its two predecessors, The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004), I'm struck by an observation. The trilogy is about a man who does not remember who he is, then discovers the awful truth, and wishes he did not know it all over again. Though each of the film concludes with a nominal "happy ending" one could also read the trilogy as a long-form tragedy of self-realization and disgust. Over the course of the films, directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, Bourne discovers his identity at the cost of his humanity.
Consider, for example, how much Bourne (played impressively throughout by Matt Damon) speaks in Identity and how little he speaks in Supremacy and Ultimatum. In the first film, he's downright chatty; a borderline whiner about his condition and his past and his inability to extricate himself and his new friend Marie (Franka Potente) from a deadly situation. By the third film Bourne, back on his own, says less than Clint Eastwood in a Leone movie, and most of what he does say consists of orders he barks to other people in order to keep them alive. In Identity he's passionate and curious. In Ultimatum he's resigned and disgusted by the truth.
Though I've never read any of Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels, it also appears (based on plot descriptions I've read online) that the Bourne films are a rare case where Hollywood has made something significantly darker than its source material. We're used to Hollywood changing the endings of popular novels so the hero gets the girl or wins the day. But Bourne flips that, making things significantly bleaker than its original formation at nearly every turn. For instance, in the original Ludlum Identity, Bourne initially suspects he is a black ops assassin for the CIA, but ultimately learns that's just a cover for his true identity as an undercover government agent. In Doug Liman's Bourne Identity, Jason really is a living weapon. In Ludlum's books, his love interest Marie, survives, and even plays a major role in defeating the main antagonist of The Bourne Supremacy. In Paul Greengrass' Bourne Supremacy, Marie is shot and killed in an absolutely brutal scene. In Ludlum's books, Bourne's handler, Alexander Conklin, is a friend and trusted government agent. In all three films, Conklin and the two men who essentially serve the same role after he's murdered are all revealed as duplicitious, self-serving traitors.
What few honest, noble characters the films have from Marie to journalist Simon Ross to agent Danny Zorn are pretty much all killed in awful ways. Most are shot as well, marking the Bourne trilogy as the rare action franchise that actually deplores gun violence instead of celebrating it. There is plenty of pure visceral entertainment in the Bournes, but those scenes tend to fall into two categories: car chases and hand-to-hand fistfights. Though Bourne occasionally brandishes a gun, he rarely uses it; more often than not, his enemies have the weaponry, and he disarms them with his flash karate moves. When his opponent has a knife, he grabs a pen, or a roll of paper. When Bourne does kill, he does so at a great cost to his soul both Liman and Greengrass let the fight scenes play longer than in traditional action films so we see the aftermath, Bourne catching his breath or washing the blood from his hands or looking at himself mournfully in the mirror. We're not happy that someone like The Professor is dead, just that Bourne is still alive.
My only further point to make amidst all of this is while this series has progressively gotten darker and less traditional, the films have gotten more and more popular. So far The Bourne Ultimatum has earned more than either of its predecessors in the United States, while also earning the best reviews of the series (93% on Rotten Tomatoes). It's funny that Bourne is such a Cold War character since, really, America hasn't latched onto a hero this morosely neurotic since the 1970s.
On a side note: does Bourne ever issue an ultimatum in the third film? And what the hell is a supremacy?!?