Action is a movie genre dominated by muscular hero types with single causes and absolute moral certainty about what they're doing and why they're doing it, which is what makes Jason Bourne such a rare breed.
Most of us have grown up watching the likes of James Bond, Dominic Toretto in the Fast and the Furious and any number of superheroes across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, spectacular adventures with heroes with righteous causes and real villains. So, when Matt Damon announced himself in 2002 with The Bourne Identity, all the rules were broken.
Jason Bourne made his debut in 1980 in Robert Ludlum's novel, The Bourne Identity. When we first meet Bourne, who a group of fisherman have pulled out of the Mediterranean, he's suffering from retrograde amnesia and is desperate for answers about who he is. Quickly, we learn this is not your average man, as his survival skills are heightened and he's rather handy in a fight. As Bourne searches for keys to his past, he's also forced to confront why why several shadowy groups, a professional assassin, and the CIA want him dead...
The character was actually first taken to the screen in 1988 for a TV movie of the same name starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, before it was rebooted by director Doug Liman for the big screen.
Liman wanted Bourne to be Brad Pitt, but in the end, he settled on Matt Damon, who gave the character a nuance, urgency and pathos that made him an action hero we hadn't seen before. Who was this man? Who'd trained him? And what had he done?
Unlike in the classic globe-trotting action movies we'd seen before, the enemy wasn't a vicious oligarch or a cave-dwelling psychopath, Bourne's tormentors were the CIA, the heart of US intelligence, a man fighting the system that had created him and now wanted to destroy him.
Over the course of five movies, the franchise netted more than $1.63 billion at the box office, made an A-lister of Damon, and redefined the genre. But which one of his outings is the best?
We've ranked each of the Bourne movies, including The Bourne Legacy, which saw Damon replaced by Jeremy Renner, in order from worst to best. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it, and, naturally, there are rather a lot of spoilers along the way.
5. The Bourne Legacy
A movie that should never have been made and which turned out to be an utter horrorshow.
After the triumphant ending of the original Bourne trilogy with The Bourne Ultimatum (more on that movie later), Matt Damon made it clear in interviews and to studio executives that he would not do another Bourne film without director Paul Greengrass. And, when Greengrass declined the option of a fourth movie, Damon was out too.
Universal executives should have shown some patience, waiting for Greengrass and Damon to build up their appetite and return to the character, but instead they ploughed on and cast Jeremy Renner as the face of a new Bourne spin-off.
Renner plays Aaron Cross, who, much like Bourne, was another young recruit prepared to do anything for his country, who signs up for a black ops program called Operation Outcome whose subjects are genetically enhanced.
When Bourne's actions expose the program he's part, Cross is forced to run for his life when the CIA gives the order for all of the agents and participating doctors from Operation Outcome to be killed.
As Cross runs, he comes across Rachel Weisz's Dr. Marta Shearing, one of the doctors from Outcome, and the two partner up in an attempt to keep themselves alive.
Renner does his best in Damon's stead, but this movie is flat, uninspired and not nearly as compelling as the original trilogy. A mistake.
4. Jason Bourne
With The Bourne Legacy proving to be a critical and commercial flop, Universal persuaded Damon and Greengrass to return and in 2016 Jason Bourne returned for a new chapter.
We meet a down-on-his-luck Bourne who has shut himself away from the world and is scraping a living by winning bareknuckle fights in Greece. His old friend, Julia Stiles' Nicky Parsons, the former CIA analyst, meanwhile, has joined a hacking collective who want to expose the service's black ops programs. This brings into play Alicia Vikander's Heather Lee, the CIA’s cybersecurity operations division head, and Tommy Lee Jones' CIA Director Robert Dewey.
During the back, Parsons finds new evidence about Bourne's recruitment into Treadstone, the program that made him the elite assasin he became, and, his father's role in the program, and vows to let him know. Bourne, who'd finally shaken off his amnesia, suddenly needs more answers and he and Parsons team up.
Quickly spotted by Lee and Dewey, the game of cat and mouse begins once again.
It doesn't have the spark of the original trilogy, but there are some great action set pieces, including a thrilling chase through a fiery protest march, and Alicia Vikander makes for a steely villain.
It was hoped that this might extend the franchise, but instead producers pivoted to TV with Treadstone, which found itself canceled after one season.
3. The Bourne Supremacy
Now we're into the original trilogy, and, truthfully, there's very little to choose between them.
The Bourne Supremacy is the middle instalment in the trilogy and it starts with a bang. Bourne is in Goa with Marie, a woman he meets in The Bourne Identity, and both are keeping their heads down.
Still suffering from amnesia, Bourne is doing his best to recover, but his world is thrown into chaos when he is framed by Russian agent named Kirill for the theft of millions from the CIA.
Trying to cover his tracks, Kirill pursues Bourne, intending to assassinate him, and a shot meant for him kills Marie instead. Vowing revenge, Bourne sets out to prove his innocence and has the CIA in his sights. They should have left him well alone.
A great action film, this is Greengrass' first foray into the franchise and he creates an amped-up globe-trotting thriller, with bruising physicality and endless twists and turns as Bourne battles Karl Urban's Kirill. This movie's only drawback is the ending goes a bit wild, especially when Brian Cox's Ward Abbott, who was once in charge of Treadstone, comes into play.
2. The Bourne Identity
Narrowly missing out on the top spot, this is the movie that launched the franchise, a blistering opening salvo.
The movie begins with a body being dragged on board a fishing boat. The man, barely alive, remembers nothing. After we learn this is Jason Bourne, we then learn that the CIA are after him and he owns a vast array of passports and has access to a lot of easy cash.
Desperate for answers, Bourne has a lead in Paris, and he What he doesn't like is the gun and fake passports belonging to him. To get to Paris, Bourne offers $20,000 to Marie Kreutz, a 26-year-old German woman whom he saw at the consulate, to drive him there.
Naturally, with the full force of US intelligence after him, the drive proves to be fraught with dinner, and his search for answers will involve a lot of bullets and bloodshed.
Vicious, gripping, full of thrills and spills, Bourne's opening chapter is a must-see, and it deserves to top any list. Just not this one...
1. The Bourne Ultimatum
It's a rare thing for a movie trilogy to truly end on a high. There are lot more examples of bowing out with a whimper, à la The Matrix Revolutions than there are of going out on a high like Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. But The Bourne Ultimatum is one of those rare examples.
We find Bourne once again trying to stay out of trouble, only for trouble to find him, this time Paddy Considine's Simon Ross, a journalist in London, has found a CIA source who is opening up about Operation Blackbriar, the next level to Treadstone.
Bourne vows to help Ross, a decision that brings him back in the firing line and finally puts him on a path to finding out the truth about his past.
Conducted at rip-roaring speed and chock full of incredible action sequences and pulse-racing chases, the movie tears through its runtime and builds towards a real, satisfying crescendo. This is as good as action movies get.
In the mood for another ranking? Check out our grading of all the Mission: Impossible movies.
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Tom Goodwyn was formerly TechRadar's Senior Entertainment Editor. He's now a freelancer writing about TV shows, documentaries and movies across streaming services, theaters and beyond. Based in East London, he loves nothing more than spending all day in a movie theater, well, he did before he had two small children…