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the bourne conundrum

Maybe It’s Time to Recast Jason Bourne

Over the weekend, Tony Gilroy, the writer of the first three Bourne films, spoke with Jeffrey Wells about the fourth Bourne movie, The Bourne Legacy, which Gilroy just signed on to write and direct. Gilroy wanted to clarify that the new Bourne is not actually about Jason Bourne. Rather, it will take place in the same world as and have a plot “triggered” by the previous movies, but will contain an entirely new protagonist. In other words, no one — repeat no one — is thinking about recasting Jason Bourne with an actor other than Matt Damon. But maybe they should be.

But Universal might want to risk the outrage. Hollywood has a long history of successfully recasting iconic franchise leads; it has rarely launched a successful spinoff (defined here as a movie that takes a minor character from an earlier film, and turns him/her into the protagonist). Cinematic recasting coups include James Bond, Batman, and Captain Kirk, and may soon also include Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man, a new Superman, and Chris Pine as Jack Ryan (who has already been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck). Meanwhile, Hollywood movie spinoffs include Evan Almighty, Catwoman, U.S. Marshals, Elektra, and The Scorpion King, a list of movies you either wish you hadn’t, or would be lucky not to have, seen. (They're the movie equivalents of After M*A*S*H.)

Sure, there is a risk in recasting Matt Damon, who is neither too old nor too jerky to deserve that fate, just seemingly uninterested in continuing on. But there’s an arguably bigger risk in making a movie that’s mysteriously missing its central character and messing with the essence of the franchise. As Eric Van Lustbader, who ghostwrote a number of Robert Ludlum’s posthumous Bourne books, himself noted in the comments of last night's Vulture post, “I have to laugh at people who say: What? There's no Bourne without Matt Damon. As if there was no James Bond without Sean Connery … Franchises are immortal, by definition they outlive their actors.”

Recast films have generally been more successful than spinoffs because in the former, if we don’t always get to keep the actor, at least we get to keep our hero. The relative success of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is the exception that proves the rule here: Wolverine was the most popular character in the X-Men movies, the mutant we cared most about. In Wolverine, we got to watch the hero we were invested in. All due respect to Joan Allen, Jason Bourne is the character in the Bourne films we care most about. A spinoff about her, or anyone else, won't scratch the itch. A Bourne movie isn’t a Bourne movie without Jason Bourne, whether he’s played by Matt Damon or someone else.

Sure, there is a risk in recasting Matt Damon, who is neither too old nor too jerky to deserve that fate, just seemingly uninterested in continuing on. But there’s an arguably bigger risk in making a movie that’s mysteriously missing its central character and messing with the essence of the franchise. As Eric Van Lustbader, who ghostwrote a number of Robert Ludlum’s posthumous Bourne books, himself noted in the comments of last night's Vulture post, “I have to laugh at people who say: What? There's no Bourne without Matt Damon. As if there was no James Bond without Sean Connery … Franchises are immortal, by definition they outlive their actors.”

Photo: Universal Pictures