Movie Machine

Everything You Need to Know Going Into 'Jason Bourne'

jason bourne
Universal Pictures

Roughly a decade after disappearing in the East River, Jason Bourne is finally resurfacing at a cineplex near you. The fifth installment of the Matt Damon-dominated series boasts more complicated backstory, new characters, timely cybersecurity and privacy plot elements, a 170-vehicle chase sequence, and, if the sound at the end of this trailer is for real, something like brass-knuckle implants, baby!

Don't expect Bourne to net Ol' Metal Mitts another Golden Globe for best musical, but do expect its high-octane set pieces to elicit a few exclamations of "Sick, dude!'", and to add to the franchise's already-fat $1.2 billion global box office purse. Since it's been awhile since the last Bourne, we made a cheat sheet detailing everything that has happened ahead of the latest sequel, out Friday.

(Warning: Substantial spoilers for The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum, and Legacy -- Damon's first, second, and third films, plus the Jeremy Renner-led spin-off, respectively -- follow.)

The basics

Jason Bourne is really David Webb, a former U.S. Army Delta Force captain-turned-covert operative. Around 1999, Webb volunteered for "Operation Treadstone," a CIA black ops program that generated and managed a cadre of sleeper agents stationed around the world. (Robert Ludlum's original story links part of Webb's motivations to the tragic death of his wife and children; the movies have yet to be as forthright.)

"Bourne" was one of many aliases Webb could assume on Treadstone assignments, typically hush or elaborately staged hit jobs on high-profile targets. As an activated asset, Bourne functioned as a $30 million government weapon with fluency in almost a dozen languages, heightened IQ and senses, nonpareil combat skills, and insane intuition. He's supposed to be a flawless, robotic, cold-blooded killer.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

  • Background: A near-lethal encounter has left Bourne with amnesia, as well as two slugs in his back. Mysteriously found in the Mediterranean Sea, he's saved by fishermen who rehab his injuries.
  • Main cities involved: Washington, D.C.; Zürich, Switzerland; Paris, France; the French countryside; Mykonos, Greece.
  • Mystery at hand: For the bulk of the first movie, Bourne wants to know quite literally who the hell he is. He does so by tracking down his old boss, interrogating his would-be assailants, and piecing together clues from his past, including things like hazy flashbacks and a dozen or so passports found in a safety deposit box.  
  • Organizations of importance: CIA; Treadstone.
  • Terrible, older white male authority figure: Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper), the CIA official who oversaw Treadstone and worked directly with Bourne before his amnesia. Conklin was a ruthless boss who gave Bourne controversial assignments, a couple of which were so ethically ambiguous they made him stray. Conklin considers Bourne rogue for nixing his last assignment, going off the grid, and killing his spies.
  • J.B.'s accomplice: When Bourne begins his thrilling reappearing-disappearing act, he bumps into a young German student named Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) at Switzerland's U.S. embassy. She gives him a ride to Paris for a casual $20,000 so he can evade police capture. By assisting his escape, Marie quickly becomes as wanted by the CIA as Bourne.
  • People who try to assassinate J.B.: Noted gypsy Nicky Naude, as Castel, who gets his shit rocked in an absurd pen-knife fight; and Clive Owen, as "The Professor," a steely marksman who is thrown off by a flock of birds.
  • Which chase scene was this?: The one that made battered vintage Austin Minis look badass.
  • What we learn by the end: Bourne's last official mission had involved a hit on Nykwana Wombosi (Adawale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a deposed Nigerian dictator. But Bourne bailed last minute because family members and children were on his target's yacht; cold feet gave Wombosi the opportunity to shoot him, leading to the situation at the beginning of the movie. After confronting Conklin and Treadstone support tech Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) about this, Bourne resigns. The program is officially shut down and decommissioned when a third asset, Manheim (Russell Levy), kills Conklin.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

  • Background: Bourne and Marie have escaped and shacked up together, enjoying a quiet life of trying to remember Treadstone missions and doing tasteful PDA.
  • Main cities involved: Goa, India; Berlin and Munich, Germany; Naples, Italy; Moscow, Russia; New York.
  • Mystery at hand: Meeting Conklin face to face has prompted new flashbacks of another traumatic mission. The hazy memories show a hotel, a double homicide staged as a murder-suicide, and a family photo. Bourne wants to know who his targets were and why he had to kill them.
  • Organizations of importance: Task Chief Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and her CIA team; Treadstone.
  • J.B.'s accomplice: Briefly, glimpses of Bourne and Marie's new life in India are shown. Heartbreak arrives in the form of a Russian assassin who mistakenly snipes Marie during an early chase sequence. In terms of both a sidekick and lover, she isn't replaced here -- though seeds of a potential alliance with Parsons are sown during a tense interrogation scene.
  • Terrible, old white male authority figures: In flashbacks, we see more of Conklin and his sketchiness. Primarily, though, this installment concerns Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), Conklin's superior and the grand puppetmaster of Treadstone. Also: on the periphery slinks Abbott's secret business partner Gretkov (Karel Roden), a Russian oil oligarch who has connections to his country's secret service equivalent.
  • People who try to assassinate J.B.: In a very convoluted plot, Abbott and Gretkov hire a Russian agent named Kirill (Karl Urban) to steal docs from Landy's ops that implicate them in a sketchy oil deal, frame Bourne as the thief, and then kill him. Bourne and Kirill meet twice: first at a distance in the India car chase, when Marie dies, and next near the end of the film, during the bigger chase sequence in Moscow. Marton Csokas, as former Treadstone operative Jarda, also tries to subdue Bourne, but he falls victim to a magazine and an electrical cord.
  • Which chase scene was this?: Remember when Bourne commandeered that beat-up taxi and got his Moscow Drift on? Concrete divider: 1; Kirill: 0.
  • What we learn by the end: (1) Conklin had Bourne murder a Russian politician, Vladimir Neski, to help Abbott cover up the illicit deal he made with Gretkov. The assassination almost went awry when Bourne found Neski's wife at the scene of the hit; he was forced to kill both of them and stage it as a murder-suicide. Landy receives all this info, plus the earlier frame-up, in a secretly recorded confession from Abbott. (2) When in Moscow, Bourne also visits Neski's orphaned daughter, now much older, and explains that her mother was not at fault. He killed her parents; he apologizes. "He's really trying to discover not only who he is but what kind of person he was," producer Frank Marshall explained, regarding Supremacy, in 2004. "He still has amnesia but he's hoping -- and certainly his girlfriend Marie is hoping -- he was a good guy." On a deeper level, Bourne's story is now not just about figuring out his past, but also atoning for it.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

  • Background: Caught red-handed, Abbott has committed suicide. Bourne is still fleeing after narrowly dodging Kirill and Moscow police. Now he endures flashbacks from the days he was first recruited for Treadstone. The replacement for Treadstone, called Blackbriar, is also now active.
  • Main cities involved: Moscow, Russia; Turin, Italy; London, England; Paris, France; Madrid, Spain; Tangier, Morocco; New York.
  • Mystery at hand: Bourne wants to know why he joined Treadstone. But along with his new batch of memories, the fugitive op also needs to figure out what "Blackbriar" is.
  • Organizations of importance: CIA; Blackbriar (Treadstone's successor).
  • J.B.'s accomplice: There's closure on the Marie front, as Bourne visits her brother and relays the news of her death, another step in his samurai's journey. In this film, Parsons also officially deviates from the CIA to help Bourne track down an informant with knowledge of Treadstone's past and legacy. Before going into hiding, she reveals she and Bourne might have had some sort of romantic relationship, pre-amnesia.
  • Terrible, old white male authority figures: A man named Noah Vosen (David Straithairn) has become the head of Blackbriar, the new assassination operation first mentioned by Abbott in Identity. He, along with CIA Director Ezra Kramer, wants Bourne dead for trying to protect a journalist and CIA informant working to expose the new program. Bourne's troubles here ultimately lead him to Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), the mastermind behind Blackbriar and the doctor who specialized in Treadstone's behavior modification training -- which involved torture tactics and psychological manipulation to muddy agents' moral compasses.
  • People who try to assassinate J.B.: In Morocco, Blackbriar asset Desh Bouksani (Joey Ansah) is able to silence the informant, but he's no match for Bourne's book and hand towel.
  • Which chase scene is this?: The batshit one in which Bourne reverses off a parking structure and then steals a cop car.
  • What we learn by the end: Landy finds Vosen and Blackbriar suspect; in the eleventh hour, she helps Bourne expose the program by taking top-secret documents he stole and faxing them to D.C. The biggest reveal, however, shows that Bourne volunteered for Treadstone; he wasn't forced into training, as his initial memories might have suggested. He joined because he was told he was going to be "saving American lives." When the disappointing memories come rushing back, he forsakes his identity, saying, "I'm no longer Jason Bourne."

The Bourne Legacy (2012)


OK, Legacy might not be worth remembering. It has very little to do within the context of Jason Bourne, in part because it existed in a netherworld during and after Ultimatum, but also because it introduced some weird Haha, whoa, I'm pretty drunk but this seems like a good idea-kind of elements -- namely these pills, called "chems," that enhance the physical and mental components of assets. (Think Limitless-meets-Bourne.) Legacy does, however, offer one very noteworthy plot point for background: Treadstone and Blackbriar were beta programs that inspired a slew of other superior ones, including Outcome, the one Renner belonged to, and its replacement, LARX.

Jason Bourne (2016)

  • Background: Since the Ultimatum mess, Bourne has again gone off the grid, spending his days at underground prizefights. Hirsch died of a "heart attack" sometime between the events of Ultimatum and Legacy.
  • What we don't know: The fates of such key players as Vosen (David Strathairn), Kramer (Scott Glenn), and Landy (Joan Allen). The Senate was investigating Treadstone and Blackbriar at the ends of Ultimatum and Legacy -- neither showed anything conclusive, though it was implied Landy might be in trouble for helping Bourne. Keep all that in the back of your head, since this series often references old characters and plot points in throwaway lines and visuals. But the CIA officials we should most be concerned with now are the new characters Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones play.
  • Returning accomplice: Julia Stiles, as Parsons, is also back and she's just as rogue as Bourne.
  • Person who will try to assassinate J.B.: At the very least, it should be Vincent Cassel, known here as "the Asset." It's unclear which org he belongs to, but according to previously released teasers, yet another mysterious Treadstone replacement called "Iron Hand" has been activated. According to Parsons, it's supposed to be "even worse than before."

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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.