Watch out, Jason Bourne is back in action – and so, too, is the man who made famous the role of everybody’s favourite amnesiac assassin. After a nine-year gap, Matt Damon returns for his fourth outing as Bourne –but this time, it seems, almost everything has changed.
Unencumbered by ultimata, legacies or even a sense of supremacy, the rogue agent has his memory back – but his renewed sense of identity has come at a price. With no revenge to exact or conspiracies to unravel, the film begins with the former Treadstone operative bare-knuckle boxing in Greece, directionless, listless and devoid of a sense of purpose. Fortunately for the franchise, however, it’s not long before new mysteries emerge and Bourne is back on track.
It is fitting that the fifth Bourne movie in 15 years should start with a fight scene. The franchise has always been defined by the kinetic, stripped-down nature of its hand-to-hand combat scenes – a breakneck mixture of the Filipino kali and jeet kune do martial arts – and a sustained, visceral tension that rarely requires the audience to entirely suspend its sense of disbelief.
When The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman, opened in June 2002, the gulf between this new breed of espionage drama and what then passed for spy movies was highlighted by the subsequent release of Die Another Day, the 20th film in the James Bond series – and the fourth to feature Pierce Brosnan.
Eon Production’s 40th-anniversary Bond was one of the highest-grossing 007 adventures up to that point – but in toe-to-toe competition with its new adversary, the film’s heavy use of CGI, ironic one-liners and credulity-defying set pieces looked distinctly old-fashioned.
Brosnan was, in his own words, unexpectedly and unceremoniously "kicked to the kerb" soon after Die Another Day was released, effectively sacked by Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson over the telephone.
According to Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury, authors of Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films, there was a feeling after Die Another Day that the long-running spy saga required a reboot to make it more relevant to modern audiences. This led to the appointment of Daniel Craig as the sixth official 007 (after Sean Connery, Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton and Brosnan) in 2005.
In 2007, a year after the release of Casino Royale, seen by many as a clear attempt to remould Bond in the style of Bourne's gritty image, the rivalry between the franchises went public.
"The Bourne franchise isn't about wearing Prada suits and looking at women coming out of the sea in bikinis," said director Paul Greengrass, ahead of the UK release of The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the series and the second he had directed, after 2004's The Bourne Supremacy. "It is about essence and truth – not frippery and surface."
Damon was also keen to highlight the differences.
“The Bond character will always be anchored in the 1960s, and the values of the 1960s,” he said.
“Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it and drinks martinis and cracks jokes.
“Bourne is a serial monogamist whose girlfriend is dead and he does nothing but think about her ... he doesn’t have the support of gadgets and feels guilty about what he’s done.”
Of course, Bond and Bourne are not the only famous spies served up on film and TV.
In the past 20 years we have had Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24, Jennifer Garner as Sidney Bristow in the JJ Abrams-created Alias, and Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in the movie reboot of the 1960s TV show, Mission: Impossible.
There has even been a period drama about America's first spy ring, the Revolutionary War-era Turn: Washington's Spies, which recently completed its third season on US cable channel AMC.
There is, however, one bygone era that remains the golden age of spies – the Cold War.
The constant, oppressive threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction might feel incredibly distant now, 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the paranoia, subterfuge and surveillance still feel incredibly relevant.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the Cold War is back – in Hollywood, at least – complete with an enemy whose mere existence represented an existential threat to the American way of life.
In the past couple of years we have had films such as Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, based on the 1960 Gary Powers U2 spy-plane incident; a reboot of 1960s TV hit The Man From Uncle; and Edward Zwick's Pawn Sacrifice, which filters the US/USSR face-off through the true story of one of the strangest and most symbolic confrontations of the Cold War era: troubled US chess prodigy Bobby Fischer's 1972 showdown with Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik.
Add to these The Man Who Saved the World, Peter Anthony's 2014 documentary about Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet military officer who might have single-handedly prevented all-out nuclear war in 1983, and Tomas Alfredson's 2011 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré's novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole within Britain's MI6, which was previously adapted for TV in 1979 by the BBC – and it's as if the Cold War never went away.
Is this return of the Cold War drama just a matter of nostalgia or is there something more at stake?
The critically acclaimed US TV series The Americans – about two Soviet KGB agents posing as a married couple in 1980s America – and East German spy drama Deutschland 83 both take viewers back to a period that, despite the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, had clearly defined protocols and rules of engagement. As a result, it now seems much more intelligible, stable and binary than the present chaotic age and the threats it has brought.
For moviegoers and telly addicts, at least, there seems to be something comforting in that.