The Bourne Identity: Remembering Things Past

HE WAS THE PERFECT WEAPON UNTIL HE BECAME THE TARGET.

Doug Liman surprised the world in 2002. In the late 1990s the director had delivered two reasonably successful films, Swingers (1996) and GO (1999), but no one could have expected him doing a simple action movie next – and being so good at it. When The Bourne Identity was released, the critics loved what they saw. Liman has indeed made a slick, tense movie… but I still can’t see what it is about this film that would make it such a genre classic.

This was not the first time Robert Ludlum’s spy novel was turned into a movie. Richard Chamberlain starred in a 1988 miniseries, one that wasn’t bad at all. Doug Liman’s movie introduced a younger Jason Bourne and pretty much ignored the story Ludlum had written; this version would do things its own way. It begins with a young, athletic man (Matt Damon) being fished out of the Mediterranean Sea, unable to remember his name or why he ended up there. He has two bullets in his back and an implant in his hip revealing a Swiss bank account number. That’s the only clue to his past, so the young man goes to Zurich and finds a few interesting things in a safe deposit box. Like a gun. Like cash. Like several different passports. He also finds his name, Jason Bourne. By now it is pretty obvious to him that he was some kind of operative for the CIA and he decides to find out what happened and why some people are trying to kill him. He hooks up with Marie (Franka Potente), a young German who decides to help him, and eventually they end up in Paris where Bourne expects to confront the men who want him dead. Along with Damon, the filmmakers worked hard to lend Bourne an aura of danger; we are supposed to believe that this man could kill you in a second. They pretty much get away with it, not least because of the clever things you can do in the editing room. Damon is good, but never entirely convincing as the deadly agent; there’s a sweetness to him that Jason Bourne shouldn’t have.

Cold European locations
The cast is filled with familiar faces. Chris Cooper and Brian Cox play untrustworthy and powerful men, which is not a first. Clive Owen plays a hit man called The Professor but fails to make much of an impact; equally invisible really is Julia Stiles as a CIA operative. Potente, who starred in the overrated German film Run Lola Run (1998), is appealing in her first major Hollywood movie, although her character is not fully fleshed out. But that’s OK. We don’t need to learn all that much about her and Bourne. What’s important is that we care about what happens to them, and we do. The cold European locations are perfect for a spy thriller of this kind. There are car chases, fights and shootouts… but no real surprises and nothing we haven’t seen before.

There is one outstanding action sequence where Bourne throws himself on top of a corpse and down a flight of stairs, shooting an assassin in the process and then landing safely on the corpse. It takes a bit of CGI to pull it off, but it looks great. Now what if the entire movie behaved like that? Then Doug Liman’s first major Hollywood thriller would have deserved the kudos it received.

The Bourne Identity 2002-U.S. 121 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Doug Liman. Novel: Robert Ludlum. Cast: Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Franka Potente (Marie Helena Kreutz), Chris Cooper (Alexander Conklin), Brian Cox, Clive Owen, Julia Stiles.

Trivia: Brad Pitt was allegedly considered for the part of Bourne. Followed by three sequels, starting with The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and a spin-off movie, The Bourne Legacy (2012).

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