Will Matt Damon Give Bourne Back His Swagger?

The star of the original films is coming back – and this time he’s off book.

News that Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass are returning to the Bourne franchise has been met with universal jubilance for a reason: The films that proved Will Hunting could kick ass were followed by a Jeremy Renner sequel that proved that Hawkeye could squint at explosions. For whatever reason – a number of reasons really – “The Bourne Legacy” did not work in the way that “The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” very much did. But what’s interesting about the news isn’t just that Greengrass and Damon are taking a break from making good movies and making mediocre movies respectively to take a victory lap, but that they’re going off book. Having filmed all of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels, the duo is going to have to make the character their own.

Imagining a new adventure for America’s favorite amnesiac will be a bit harder because the engine that drove the first three movies, Bourne’s investigation into his own past, is out of gas. “Ultimatum” ended with our hero uncovering his past and swimming across Manhattan’s East River. The sequel is unlikely to consist of Bourne taking a long hot shower to get the sewage off, so we’ve got a hero in need of a villain. In all likelihood, Bourne will be pitted against Operation Treadstone, his former employer and bette noir. That’s fine, but the filmmakers have to be careful. Film series based on books tend to go one of two ways when they run out of source material: They get terrible or great.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” Guy Ritchie’s follow up to 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes,” was a commercial success and artistic failure based on Conan Doyle’s characters and not much else. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” was the first film based on Tom Clancy’s characters but not his work. It was not as good as “Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games,” “Clear or Present Danger,” or – we’ll go out on a limb – “The Sum of All Fears.” On the other hand, “Die Hard 2,” a sequel to a movie based on a book, is one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Similarly, “The Avengers,” which isn’t based on a particular comic, is amazing in an explosive sort of way. In both cases – as in the case of the better non-book Bond movies, “Octopussy” and “Skyfall” – the filmmakers decided to go big with it. John McClane got more sarcastic and tougher, the Avengers got a sense of humor and a galactic foe, and the Bond girls were gorgeous.

What made the early Bourne films so propulsive was the nature of the violence, which was more athletic than theatrical, and the direction, which was unsentimental in the mode of “Dirty Harry” or “Bullett.” Nothing needs to change there. The only thing that really needs to change is the stakes. Bourne used to fight for himself. Now we need him to fight for a cause. Let’s hope it’s morally questionable (otherwise he’s Batman without the getup) and that furthering it requires going on a European road trip with a beautiful woman. It probably will and we’ll definitely come along.