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What Amazon’s ‘Citadel’ gets wrong about ‘The Bourne Identity’

This amnesiac spy thriller owes a lot to Bourne—but fails to understand what made Bourne so great.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 28, 2023   Updated on Apr 27, 2023, 4:01 pm CDT

After The Bourne Identity came out in 2002, Hollywood spent the next decade trying to emulate its success, inspiring a wave of gritty thrillers and naturalistic shakey-cam fight scenes. Amazon’s expensive new miniseries Citadel is another belated wannabe, retreading familiar ground as an action thriller about amnesiac spies. It’s a woefully unsuccessful homage—and its failures highlight the still-unmatched qualities of the original Bourne.

Rewatching The Bourne Identity in 2023, those percussive combat scenes are, if anything, the least distinguishing element of the film. Scripted by Tony Gilroy (Andor, Michael Clayton) and William Blake Herron, Bourne echoes the tense, character-focused tone of 1970s surveillance thrillers. Conceived before 9/11 and the resulting trend toward patriotism and uplifting fantasy, it also casts the U.S. military-industrial complex as the villain.

Hounded by amoral and self-serving CIA agents, Jason Bourne is a startlingly gentle protagonist. When he’s not in immediate danger, he resembles a bewildered college student. And when he does have to be an action hero, the film does a fantastic job of illustrating his skillset: A compulsively analytical problem-solver, always observing every detail of the world around him.

Bourne’s competence is enormously compelling to watch, from the way he navigates his environment to his facility with improvised tools. With little need for exposition, Matt Damon’s performance illustrates that Jason is a) smart, b) ferociously well-trained, and c) disturbed by his own capabilities. He’s ruthless by instinct, but not necessarily by nature.

The Bourne Identity‘s great unsung strength is the time it spends developing Jason’s relationship with his love interest Marie Kreutz. Neither a superhuman badass nor a glamorized figure of desire, she’s unusually normal (and normal-looking) for a female lead in this type of film. Her romance with Jason is slow-moving and sincere. Her backstory as a drifter offers a plausible explanation for why she takes a chance on him in the first place. And when she witnesses him fighting a rival assassin, she reacts realistically, vomiting and going into shock.

Citadel, with its amnesiac spy storyline, owes much to the Bourne franchise. At one points the hero’s wife even quips, “You can’t even remember to put the toilet seat down, and now you’re Jason Bourne?” But these callbacks only make Citadel look worse by comparison; not just derivative but repeatedly failing to understand Bourne’s strengths.

For eight years, Citadel‘s main character Mason Kane has lived as a civilian, unaware of his past life as a spy. Yet the show’s writers are uninterested in defining Mason’s post-amnesia personality and lifestyle. His wife and child are as two-dimensional as the family in a cereal commercial, and the only thing we know about his job or social life is that he coaches Little League.

Introduced as a generic everyman, Mason’s lack of distinguishing features creates a bizarrely conflict-free relationship between his past and present selves.

What does Civilian Mason think of his past life as a killer, morally speaking? Not much, it seems. And if neither Mason nor his family feel like real people, then why should we care about their lives being disrupted? In terms of pure entertainment value as a thriller, the show also struggles to make Mason (or his partner Nadia) look notably dangerous or competent. So these characters are neither satisfying to watch nor psychologically interesting in any way.

For Amazon, Citadel‘s goal is to launch a supposedly “Avengers-style” franchise of international spinoffs. But what, exactly, are they offering to viewers? The target audience here is people who enjoy stuff like Mission Impossible and Bourne, but Citadel has no respect for its own sources. It’s basically a mishmash of spy thriller tropes with forgettable action and boring characters, offering nothing but a superficial resemblance to better media that came before.

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*First Published: Apr 28, 2023, 9:00 am CDT