Should I Watch..? The Bourne Identity
What's the Big Deal?
The Bourne Identity is an action spy thriller film released in 2002 and is an adaptation of the novel by Robert Ludlum. It would be the first in a series of films featuring the character of Jason Bourne, an amnesiac secret agent attempting to discover his past whilst avoiding many attempts on his life by his former CIA bosses. The film differs greatly from the book which had a Cold War setting to it - director Doug Liman updates the novel for a post 9/11 world, despite the film originally due for release before the September 11th attacks. After being pushed back, the film was dramatically re-edited and released to critical acclaim and commercial success after taking more than $210 million globally. It also inspired the owners of the Bond franchise to reboot their series and ground it more in reality, leading to the release of Casino Royale (1) with Daniel Craig in 2006.
What's It About?
Somewhere in the Mediterranean, a small fishing boat encounters an unconscious individual floating in the water with gunshot wounds to his back. Pulling him on board, the ship doctor manages to save his life but discovers that the man is American and has no memory of who he is. However, he displays extraordinary aptitude in other areas such as martial arts and understanding and speaking several languages. The man also has a strange device implanted in his hip which displays an account number of a deposit box in Zurich.
After returning to port, the man sets off to investigate the deposit box. There, he discovers a number of passports which all have his photo but with different names and addresses. He picks up - Jason Bourne - and decides to investigate Bourne's Parisian address. But before he can do so, he finds himself sought by police and other military forces. Realising he's in danger, he coerces a local woman named Marie into helping him and together, they head off to Paris - unaware that their every move is being followed by Bourne's former employees in the US...
Nicolette "Nicky" Parsons
Tony Gilroy & William Blake Herron *
6th September, 2002
Action, Spy, Thriller
What's to Like?
Until Craig began wearing 007's tuxedo, the Bond films has become parodies of themselves with ridiculous gimmicks, outlandish storylines and an obscene amount of noisy explosive action that most spies would prefer to avoid. Then along comes Matt Damon and suddenly, the game changed completely. Bourne was a wounded creature, searching for answers and completely unaware of the dangers surrounding him. He feels like one of us, which makes his action sequences even more thrilling. The movie places us right in the heart of the story, only leaving enough clues to fill in a little of the politics Stateside but never enough to give the whole game away. It didn't only force the Bond producers to up their game - this film's influence can be seen in other movies like Taken (2) and Michael Mann's under-rated thriller Collateral (3).
So the action is very good indeed, from brutal fisticuffs with anonymous assassins to a gripping car chase through Paris that owes a debt of gratitude to under-rated thriller Ronin (4). As the hapless couple in the midst of mystery, Damon and Potente are fabulous and display a rare chemistry that subsequent sequels failed utterly to utilise. The always excellent Cooper and Cox also excel as the increasingly desperate diplomats eager for past mistakes to remain buried. The script might take several liberties with the source book but it is a reverent updating, maintaining the gripping plot from the book and blending it with first-rate performances, blistering action and a pulsating soundtrack that elevates the tension even further. Paul Oakenfold's Ready, Steady, Go has been used in several movies but never better than here.
- Although he died before the film was released, author and creator Robert Ludlum is credited as a co-producer on the movie.
- This is actually the second adaptation of Ludlum's novel. A 1988 TV mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain as Bourne followed the source material much more closely than this movie adaptation does.
- Despite prominent billing, Clive Owen only appears in about three minutes of the film at various points. His name is never revealed and he only speaks in his final scene. Owen described his part as putting on glasses and posing for the camera.
What's Not to Like?
Ludlum purists might find themselves as at sea as Bourne does during the film which retains maybe about 10% of the source novel. The rest is a near-perfect blend of action and dialogue. And here's the thing: I'd never read a Robert Ludlum book before I first saw The Bourne Identity but afterwards, I immediately sought out a copy of the novel and read it cover to cover. Naturally, the diverging stories confused me at first (certainly, the sequels have no correlation with their source novels) but without the film, I'd never have picked up the book in the first place. It is, for the record, a damn good read.
As for the film, I took some exception to the character of The Professor - the silent super-assassin played by one-time Bond candidate Clive Owen. We know nothing about him besides his ruthless efficiency and for me, he felt a little stereotypical for action movies of this nature. In fact, the movie itself does lack a definite conclusion of sorts and still leaves plenty of unanswered questions which means that you'll almost certainly need to watch the others. And sadly, they aren't quite as good...
Should I watch it?
Like Batman Begins (5), The Bourne Identity has become so influential to film-makers that it's amazing this style of action wasn't adapted sooner. There is no CG involved, no megalomaniac baddies with underground lairs and no cars loaded with machine guns behind the headlights. It's one man in over his head against an invisible enemy, using nothing but instinct and his skills to survive. It feels like a proper spy film, the way early Bond films used to, but more exciting somehow. The Bourne Identity was one of the best movies of 2002 and remains an exceptionally good film today.
Great For: action lovers, spy fans, Matt Damon's career.
Not So Great For: nervous Americans in Europe, Pierce Brosnan's tenure as 007.
What Else Should I Watch?
Neither The Bourne Supremacy (6) or The Bourne Ultimatum (7) would reach the same heights as this first film, although they remain decent spy films in their own right. As for The Bourne Legacy (8), it provides a decent enough action thriller but it never escapes from the fact that neither Matt Damon or director of the next two Bourne movies Paul Greengrass failed to report in for duty. As such, you're left wondering what the point of it all actually was. They both returned for Jason Bourne (9) but critics felt that this more action-orientated entry was a little laboured.
It's fascinating to see how Bond changed after this film was released, from the hideously creaky Die Another Day (10) to arguably one of the best the franchise had seen with Casino Royale, which is modern and compelling from start to finish and thankfully, short of stupid gimmicks. The trend continued with Skyfall (11) and should hopefully ensure the survival of 007 for the foreseeable future. And it's all due to Matt Damon, Franka Potente and a funky red Mini Cooper...