CINEMA CLASSICS: The Bourne Identity (2002)

Matt Damon’s one-man army returns this month. Has his first chapter aged gracefully?

Who made it?: Doug Liman (Director/Co-Producer), Tony Gilroy, W. Blake Herron (Writers), Patrick Crowley, Richard N. Gladstein (Producers), Universal Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

Tagline: “He was the perfect weapon until he became the target.”

IMDb rating: 7.9/10.

Robert Ludlum never got to see his amnesic superspy on the big screen, but Jason Bourne was an iconic name long before 2002′s movie. Over several novels, Ludlum turned what was a hackneyed conspiracy plot into a personal voyage of discovery that was more compelling than many Ian Fleming Bond adventures. Here was a government-trained badass with no memory of being a ruthless assassin. The real enigma running throughout The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), other than his real identity, is whether the repentant Bourne could ever escape his pursuers as well as the killer within. It was a great idea that was first brought to life in 1988 with a TV miniseries starring the middle-aged Richard Chamberlain. It was noticeably closer to the novel than the film, including an appearance from the one and only Carlos the Jackal. It just about deserves its cult appreciation, and can be found online if you’re ever in the mood.

Naturally, when it came time to turn these novels into blockbusters, the end result scarcely resembled Ludlum’s work. As envisioned by indie director Doug Liman (Swingers), The Bourne Identity‘s take on the character is younger and more hyperkinetic. Ties to the source are there in a general sense, but the feature adaptation is definitely Liman’s vision, and that’s perfectly fine by me. He delivered a smart, edgy action picture that built on Ludlum’s more commercial instincts and gave a boost to a genre that was running on fumes. To understand the impact of this film, you only have to look at the influence it had on 007′s reboot in Casino Royale (2005). To call it a hollow popcorn film is to do The Bourne Identity a great injustice.

Things kick-off where the novel and ’88 adaptation open: the Mediterranean. Bourne (Matt Damon) is fished out of the sea by a boat with two bullet wounds in his back, and a bank account number embedded in his hip. The good captain saves his life, but the troubled man can’t remember who he is or why he ended up afloat in the middle of nowhere. His journey leads him to Zürich, where he finds a safe deposit box full of fake passports, money and a gun. And eventually Paris, where he is driven around by a woman in need of money, Marie (Run Lola Run‘s Franka Potente). Unfortunately, his personal crusade is interrupted by hitmen who are being dispatched by his former employers. This only brings some of Bourne’s deep-seethed abilities to the surface…

No matter how good the story or action sequences are, The Bourne Identity works due to Damon. I’m fairly sure no-one else but Liman had considered putting him in an action flick, and there have been few career reinventions to match this. He is an actor that seems to divide opinion, but he was a bold choice for a film that demanded a multifaceted star. Having worked with everyone from Coppola to Spielberg, Damon gave the film credibility and a promise that the character moments would be just as compelling as the punch-ups. Consider the scene in which Zürich police officers find Bourne asleep on a park bench and trigger his dormant training. It’s tough to imagine runner-ups Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt or Sylvester Stallone selling the character’s disbelief quite as sincerely as Damon.

I’m also fond of a sequence in which Bourne and Marie take a respite from their long journey and talk awkwardly in a diner. The character is constantly watching his surroundings, looking for possible exits and sizing up everyone he comes across. He doesn’t know his own name, but he knows everything about staying alive. We can never truly understand Jason Bourne, but his relationship with Marie helps to humanise him, and reveals a good person trapped inside a perfect killing machine. That dichotomy is what makes the subsequent chases, close calls and explosions memorable. We want him to find the answers, but we’re also afraid of where those answers might lead a character we grow to care about.

Much of the film’s momentum is a direct result of the C.I.A. operatives on Bourne’s tail, and writers Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron delight in creating a world where government agents can uncover every last detail about your life at the touch of a button. It’s a lot scarier than the similarly-paranoid Enemy of the State (1998). As commander of the cloak-and-dagger Treadstone program, Conklin (a truly great Chris Cooper) is one evil, remorseless son of a bitch that you know exists in the real world. He is always in control of his crackteam and doesn’t think twice about belittling his colleagues, including uptight overseer Abbott (Brian Cox). Liman never lets us get to know them as people – they are soulless suits who, to borrow a line from Laurence Fishburne, will bleed on the flag to make sure the stripes stay red.

The characters are behind Bourne every step of the way, and the various “Assets” they send to get the job done are equally indelible, such as a bespectacled Clive Owen. His speech after Bourne has gained the upper-hand isn’t some empty threat but a lament about their line of work. If they are both cut from the same cloth, then what does that say about our “hero”?

Liman directs the proceedings with a steady hand, and I would be one of the few to prefer his more traditional composition over the realistic fury of Paul Greengrass in the next film. Supremacy and Ultimatum are excellent, of course, but it’s almost a shame that a behind-the-scenes disagreement stopped Liman from completing the trilogy himself. You have to wonder what his take on the follow-ups would have been. There’s a palpable love for the material here, and The Bourne Identity, in its best moments, echoes classic Cold War spy tales of governmental paranoia that feels like a throwback and a reinvention all at once.

Again, we come back to Damon. Convincing as a one-man army with no trace of smugness, his performance is perhaps underrated in spite of its success. It just wouldn’t be half as good without his sensitive portrayal of a very unpredictable protagonist. Damon IS Bourne, and it’s rather telling that audiences would soon reject a franchise entry without him.

Over a decade later, Identity is looking more like a near-perfect fusion of spectacle and drama that has influenced more action films than I care to count. It is a brisk and well-constructed story that offers the spoils of the genre whilst never depriving you of substance. Bourne is a character that offers a lot for both actor and director and, just for once, was executed by people who really wanted to make more than just another spy film. I believe they succeeded.

Best Scene

I’m going to be greedy and pick two Best Scenes here, because each showcase different facets of Bourne’s abilities. First, his escape from Zürich’s U.S. consulate requires him to beat down some guards, evade an entire S.W.A.T. team without firing a shot, and scale the outside of the building in a vertigo-inducing descent to the bottom.

The second scene, perhaps expectedly, is a gleefully creative Mini Cooper chase through the streets of Paris. It has been one of my favourite car chase sequences for years, and it still holds up. Whether armed with a ballpoint pen or a steering wheel, Bourne leaves them all in the dust.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • This was the first film in the UK with the “12A” certificate. The press release came out the day before it was released. Because of this, there was no time to change the “12″ card at the start with a new “12A” one.
  • In the beginning of the film Jason Bourne is looking in the mirror and says, “Weet je wie ik ben? Hou dan godverdomme op met dat gezeik en zeg het me.” It’s Dutch, and means, “Do you know who I am? Then cut the goddamn bullshit and tell me.” It is one of the few instances where Dutch is used correctly in a Hollywood production, as it is often substituted for German.
  • In an earlier draft of the screenplay, Marie was American, her surname was Purcell and she had green hair. Final drafts had her name changed to Kreutz, her nationality changed to German and she was given multicolored hair.
  • Brian Cox (Ward Abbott) appears in two other movies as the employer of an assassin who has amnesia after a traumatic event, The Long Kiss Goodnight and X2.
  • On the Region 2 Special Edition DVD, the title “The Bourne Identity” does not appear anywhere within either the theatrical or alternate versions presented on the disc. With the exception of the Universal logo, all the credits appear at the end, but still no title card.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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