Maybe She’s Bourne With It: How the Bourne Movies Put the HBIC
Action movies are notoriously bad at producing decent roles for women, but for over ten years the Bourne thrillers have been responsible for some of the genre’s best female characters. In cinemas now, The Bourne Legacy is a rejiggered entry in the popular spy movie franchise, with Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) taking over ‘kicking swarthy goons and running around rooftops’ duties in the absence of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. Bourne remains a minor presence in the movie, and he’s not the only recognisable aspect of the earlier films that’s been brought back. Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) steps up to continue a notable tradition of kickass female leads. With Weisz’s excellent work matched with the return of Joan Allen’s steely Pamela Landy, the film contains two of the most impressive performances of the 2012 blockbuster season.
From the start, The Bourne Identity and its sequels have set themselves apart from other spy movies with focus on character over action. This more resolute take on the thriller film proved to be widely influential: the first two Bournes have been credited for the look and feel of 2006’s Casino Royale, and countless other lesser knock-offs have followed.
These sharply made movies also featured an array of intelligent, complex supporting parts. All of the central women of the Bourne universe – Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) – are as smart, shrewd, and resourceful as the men. Though there is little time in an action film that can be devoted to character development, they demonstrate how combining good casting with plausible motivation can overcome the format’s limits.
Even when women show up in smaller roles, they are being unreservedly competent and generally fully-clothed. From Legacy’s high ranking team member Dita (Donna Murphy), capable techies Kim (Michelle Monaghan in Supremacy) and Lucy (Lucy Liemann in Ultimatum), the emotionally guarded orphan Irena Neski (Oksana Akinshina in Supremacy), to Marta’s fellow top-secret lab workers, gender is never their defining trait.
Their presence in the background, efficiently kicking ass and taking names with no great bother, proves that making realistic female characters isn’t that difficult, even in the case of a film genre not renowned for multifaceted roles for women (see: Dr. Christmas Jones, Charlie’s Angels, whatever Julia Roberts was doing in Ocean’s 11). These tough, whipsmart, complicated women are there because of their common ground – people in the Bourne universe are painstakingly efficient and astute.
In The Bourne Legacy, improbably good-looking virologist Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz) gets involved with Aaron Cross as they both try to evade capture by a certified CIA ‘sin eater’, the no-fucks-given Colonel Byers (Edward Norton). Early on, Aaron confronts Marta over the moral implications of her work, namely how he was an unwitting lab rat to her ambitious genetic re-modelling. It’s a short scene, sandwiched between a drawn-out fight sequence and a tense chase, but Weisz’s stricken features show a combination of highly principled character, ego, and human frailty, while displaying how the trauma of the situation hasn’t beaten her down.
By this point Marta has already managed to save her own life during a shoot-out at the high security laboratory she works in. Up until then she has been doing serious things in this lab, in the standard white coat and glasses. She spends the rest of the film fleeing for her life in exactly the sort of clothes that a smart woman would wear on the run. The heels are left at home, and the practical sweater is on.
Like parkour and Moby, sensible knitwear worn by a sensible woman is part of the Bourne DNA. There are a lot of turtlenecks in these movies. The wardrobe racks must be a revelation: too-small, grimy t-shirts for the lead, dated leisure wear for the undercover goons, and for the heroines row upon row of bulky sweaters that could belong to any soccer mom or day care manager.
The ultimate Bourne woman is CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Appearing in three of the four films, Landy is a public servant who seems to own several hundred polo necks. She never once jumps over a wall or cracks out martial art moves. But she consistently busts asses, chooses to do what’s right over what’s easy, and like all the key players in the Bourne universe, is incredibly good at her job.
Even the movie’s love interests get to show off razor-like survival instincts, like Potente’s Marie, who hustles paperwork off of a receptionist before Bourne can get around to it. Dr. Shearing ends up using her medical expertise to save Cross, and near the end of the film she takes over as the primary defender while he heals. Poor field operative Nicky Parsons risks her career and life to help Bourne out across three films, until in Ultimatum she finally drops a hint that they had been involved before he got all amnesiac on her.
Along with Aaron Cross, The Bourne Legacy introduces other Treadstone agents that followed Bourne. They were trained in the same program and are still out in the field. One of the most memorable is Outcome #4 (Jennifer Kim), said to be doing excellent work in Korea. As great as Renner and Damon are as rogue spies, #4 manages to be just as intriguing in a couple of short scenes. Now that Renner’s Aaron Cross proves that the Bourne movies can work without the Bourne, is it time for a Bournette? After Haywire, Salt, and The Avenger’s Black Widow, cinema screens are ready for a woman who can ruthlessly dispatch paperwork just as quickly as she can eliminate dangerous assassins. It would certainly show how lucky Jason Bourne was to end up on the same side as Pam Landy.