Stephen Arnell

Ten thrillers that channel Jason Bourne

Ten thrillers that channel Jason Bourne
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Amazingly, at least to this reviewer, the first film in the popular Bourne franchise was released 20 long years ago. A fresh-faced Matt Damon (then aged 32) played the titular character (real name David Webb), a memory loss-afflicted master assassin with more than a little red in his ledger.

In Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels JB is masquerading as a hit man to infiltrate a terrorist cell, unlike the film series, where he actually is former assassin with many kills.

Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) played an older, less intense Bourne (he was 54 at the time), hewing closer to the novel in a largely forgotten 1988 TV movie, which is currently available to watch on YouTube.

In the film (as in the novel) Bourne pursues the real-life Carlos the Jackal (Yorgo Voyagis); a similar plot device was used in The Assignment (1997) where Aiden Quinn plays a US navy lieutenant who bears an unfortune resemblance to notorious terrorist (Quinn also plays The Jackal).

Carlos the Jackal is currently serving multiple life sentences in France.

The Bourne Identity was directed by Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) and became an unexpected box office smash – but many feel that the series really hit its stride when the UK’s Paul Greengrass took the helm.

The director’s then cutting-edge style of shaky cam, hyper-fast edits and cod-documentary feel gave 2004’s sequel The Bourne Supremacy a distinctive kinetic energy that was swiftly picked up by other filmmakers.

To varying degrees of success.

The trouble (I guess) for Greengrass was that his style ended up becoming a cliché which makes the first, more traditionally shot picture, feel conversely less dated.

What must certainly be conceded is without the success of Liman’s film, there would be no Bourne series.

The casting of Matt Damon has proved central to the popularity of the franchise; the Damon-less sequel The Bourne Legacy (2012) proved unremarkable, whilst the 2019 series Treadstone was canned after one season.

Many movies have taken elements of Greengrass’s style and run with it, including Salt (2010), Kate (2021), Anna (2019), The Equaliser I & II (2014, 2018), Proud Mary (2018), Peppermint (2018) and The Protégé (2021).

Some consider John Wick co-directors, former stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch to have replaced Greengrass as premiere action movie stylists, which would be hard to argue with considering the success of Stahelski’s Wick sequels and Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017), Deadpool 2 (2018), Hobbs & Shaw (2019).

Leitch also produced 2021’s Nobody, a virtual re-run of John Wick, distinguished by the oddball casting of Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as Hutch Mansell, a former ‘three letter agency’ hitman on a rampage after his family home is broken into.

Leitch also directs upcoming Brad Pitt actioner Bullet Train, already generating positive word-of-mouth from genre fans.

Here’s my rundown of ten motion pictures that strive for the Bourne aesthetic:

Quantum of Solace (2008), Amazon Prime, Amazon Rent/Buy

Even more so than Martin Campbell’s free-running Casino Royale (2006), the nonsensically titled Quantum of Solace (taken from an Ian Fleming 007 short story) qualifies as a Bourne tribute act almost from the first frame.

Director Marc Forster (Christopher Robin) goes full tilt into jump cuts and handheld camera beloved by Greengrass, with a hotel room fight scene that attempts to mirror that of Liman’s film.

Still, for me Quantum of Solace has unfairly been given a bad rep. The action (although sometimes confusing) is pretty good, with strong set pieces (especially the Siena sequence) and locations off the usual Bond map.

I enjoyed Mathieu Amalric’s (Munich) squealing eco-villain Dominic Green, although his bowl-headed sidekick Elvis (Anatole Taubman, looking like Rodney Trotter from Only Fools meets Mark Zuckerberg) is less than threatening.

And Bond (Daniel Craig) wedging suave deceased ally René Mathis (the always marvellous Giancarlo Giannini) into a Bolivian wheelie-bin was totally uncalled for.

Taken (2008), Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

The movie that gave Liam Neeson his own cottage industry as a middle-aged action hero, Taken leaned more into the bone-crunching style of Liman’s picture, with the inferior sequels tending to ape Greengrass.

Neeson is terrific as ex-Special Forces/CIA operative Bryan Mills, who goes in all guns blazing after Albanian human traffickers kidnap his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) when she’s holidaying in Paris.

A big mistake for the gang, as Mills briskly sorts them out in Pierre Morel’s (District 13) lean 90-minute thriller.

As with Bourne (Treadstone) and Shooter, producers milked Taken with a TV spin-off of the same name. This March, a fourth instalment of Taken was rumoured to be in development. Who – or what will the septuagenarian Neeson be locating this time? His stolen false teeth? Pension book? Bus pass? A kitten in a tree?

Ava (2020), Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Presumably one to up the bank balance for star Jessica Chastain, as she reteams with The Help director Tate Taylor to play a former addict and army grunt turned assassin.

She gives a committed enough performance, and whilst the movie recycles the usual tropes, it does throw in a few curveballs.

And you can’t complain about the supporting cast, which includes John Malkovich, Common, Geena Davis, Colin Farrell, and Joan Chen

Ioan Gruffudd features in an effective and unnerving opening scene which unfortunately promises more than Ava actually delivers, which is a pity.

American Assassin (2017), Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

A movie that does exactly what it says on the tin. Mitch Rapp (The Maze Runner’sDylan O'Brien) is indeed both American and an assassin.

Not a film to watch before going on a beach holiday, as Mitch and fiancée Katarina (Charlotte Vega) are enjoying the sun in Ibiza when a jihadist cell attacks and massacres swathes of tourists, including his bride-to-be.

A self-trained Mitch goes on a private mission of vengeance until the CIA intervene and recruit him into Orion, a Black Ops unit headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) a badass former US Navy SEAL with a disturbing Gordon Liddy-like penchant for demonstrating his ability to endure torture.

The picture would have been better if we followed Mitch as a solo Punisher-style operator - when the Agency becomes involved nuclear weapons, backstabbing ex-colleagues and Mossad are all thrown into the mix. The action sequences are OK though.

Michael Keaton also popped up in he the not dissimilar The Protégé (2021), except this time as a bad guy.

David Suchet also features in American Assassin, playing CIA Director Stansfield; he of course played for the other side as terrorist Nagi Hassan, aka Altar, co-chief of the generically named Extremist Organization in 1996’s Executive Decision.

The International (2009), Amazon Rent/Buy

Tom Twyker’s (Babylon Berlin) thriller is set in the world of corrupt banking, arms sales, terrorism, and corporately-engineered regime change.

The movie kicks off well with a disconcerting (and all too believable) scene of public poisoning and features excellently staged set pieces but falls under the weight of its attempt to school the viewer inwho really rules the world.

Worth watching for a very Bourne-like shoot-out in Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, a Kennedy-style political assassination in Italy and a chase over the rooftops of Istanbul, the latter which may have inspired similar scenes in Taken 2 and Skyfall (both 2012).

Clive Owen is serviceable as Interpol flatfoot Louis Salinger, likewise Naomi Watts as his ally, financial crime busting Assistant DA Eleanor Whitman.

The Accountant (2016), Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Rent/Buy

It looked like Ben Affleck could mirror pal Matt Damon in having his own gritty action franchise with The Accountant, where the star plays Christian Wolff, a mob public accountant with high-functioning autism, top-notch combat skills (courtesy of his army Colonel father), an interesting art collection and a hidden agenda.

Affleck’s blank countenance masks hidden depths; a performance reprised by the actor less effectively in Adrian Lyne's supposedly erotic thriller Deep Water (2022).

Since The Accountant made over three times its budget to rake in $155.2m at the box office, the assumption was that a sequel would be swiftly greenlit.

Not so, probably due to Affleck’s wearying duties playing an increasingly zoned out Bat Man in the DC Universe of comic book movies. Until last September that is, when it was announced that The Accountant II is indeed in the works.

Red Sparrow (2018) Amazon Rent/Buy

A Russian salad of dodgy accents abound in this predictable tale of Soviet sexpionage during The Cold War, with Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, former ballerina turned honey-potting operative. More than a whiff of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.

Red Sparrow was criticised for its occasionally gratuitous graphic violence and sex – especially against women, which appears to go beyond serving the generic storyline.

Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Joely Richardson, Ciarán Hinds and Douglas Hodge all get to try out their Russian accents, some more accomplished than others.

Luc Besson’s Anna (2019) covered similar territory, this time with Helen Mirren in the Rampling-type role as handler/teacher of a female KGB agent working under the cover of a fashion model.

The 355 (2022), Amazon Rent/Buy

Coming after Simon Kinberg’s dull first directorial effort X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019), I wasn’t holding out much hope for his female-led spy thriller follow up, but I was pleasantly surprised by The 355.

It’s no masterpiece, but has enough action, humour, and surprises to keep the viewer engaged, despite its similarity to other recent team actioners such as 6 Underground (2019), The Old Guard (2020) and Infinite (2021).

A strong cast includes Jessica Chastain (who was also in Kinberg’s franchise-killing X-Men picture) Penélope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, Diane Kruger, and Lupita Nyong'o as the team of mismatched operatives on the lam, with Sebastian Stan good value as duplicitous CIA officer Nick Fowler.

I was obviously in the minority of those who enjoyed The 355, as the picture only took in $27.8m on a budget rumoured to be in the vicinity of $40-75m.

The Debt (2010), Amazon Rent/Buy

John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) took a career swerve with his remake of the 2007 Israeli thriller film Ha-Hov.

Plenty of gripping action and suspense as a young Mossad team are assigned to kidnap Dieter Vogel, the notorious ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau" (Jesper Christensen – Mr White in the Craig Bond films) from his East Berlin clinic for trial in Jerusalem.

When the plan falls apart, the team make a decision which will affect the rest of their lives. Years later they hear that Vogel is alive and living in a Kyiv asylum.

Sam Worthington plays Ciarán Hinds character in the 1960s, with Marton Csokas a youthful Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Chastain as the twentysomething version of Helen Mirren.

Madden worked with Jessica Chastain again on the political drama Miss Sloane (2016).

Hanna (2011) Amazon Prime, STARZPLAY, Amazon Rent/Buy

Although later a reasonably successful Amazon Prime series, I prefer the quick hit (sic) of Joe Wright’s (Darkest Hour) story of specially bred DNA-enhanced super spies, which introduces lyrical fantasy elements and quirky characters into what otherwise would be a by-the-numbers exercise.

Teenage Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is given the choice by ex-CIA operative father Erik (Eric Bana) to confront her fears in the shape of evil spymaster Marissa Wiegler, played by Cate Blanchett in full Wicked Witch mode.

Tom Hollander also looked to be having fun as impish assassin Isaacs, whistling cheekily as he stalks Hanna in an abandoned Berlin amusement park.

A final thought – will Matt Damon return to the role that made him an action hero?

He did once before, reuniting with Greengrass for Jason Bourne in 2016, but recent industry reports suggest another trip to the Bourne well is unlikely.

However, ‘Never say never again’, as the late Sean Connery’s wife Micheline once said (also giving producers the title for her husband’s final film as 007 in 1983). Damon is 51 years old; Daniel Craig 54; Connery was 52 when NSNA was filmed.