Yesterday’s Matinee: The Bourne Identity

1 08 2007

by mr. travis

bourne identity

Film: The Bourne Identity
Director: Doug Liman
Studio: Universal Pictures
Cast: Matt Damon, Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Franka Potente, Clive Owen, Julia Stiles
Release Date: June 14, 2002

Until the opening of The Bourne Identity, the action/spy genre was no better than the stale trappings of the James Bond series, the old reliable that had nevertheless stopped being cutting edge when Sean Connery quit for the first time in the late 60’s. Nothing could inspire the Bond series, for no matter how bad the series became, it would still be the biggest (and usually only) moneymaker in a genre that almost ceased to exist after the reality that the Cold War was over and spy movies just weren’t very much fun anymore. So, it was somewhat of a surprise when The Bourne Identity appeared in 2002, for it was the first film in some while to actually make the Bond series change its sorry ways (see Casino Royale). And, oh yeah, it was a pretty damn good movie to boot.

Directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and starring Matt Damon, the film defies convention on multiple fronts. For starters, Liman at this time didn’t really have a resume that would bring him to mind when filming an action flick (though, he was good with a steady cam in Swingers). The same with Matt Damon, whose biggest films until then were Ocean’s Eleven and Good Will Hunting, as he spent most of the time making a name for himself as an actor with a taste for a fine script, yet ones that didn’t translate to box office gold. With these two sensibilities at play, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first Bourne film relies more on characterization and storyline than its action counterparts of the time. But, such an idea did not play well with the studio, leading to several conflicts and the eventual refusal of Liman to participate in the sequel.

Based upon the novel by Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity takes the basic character from the book, while jettisoning the rest of the storyline. Gone are all references to Carlos the Jackal, the real life terrorist that was the driving force behind Ludlum’s literary trilogy, instead, Bourne is being chased by Operation Treadstone, a network of assassins created by the CIA. Liman has stated that his basis for Treadstone and its head, Alexander Conkin (Chris Cooper) was Oliver North, whom has father had worked for. Such foundations add a bit of reality to the proceedings, something that the Bond films had failed to bring since they began giving their women names like Pussy Galore.

The plot is your simple man on the run story, as Jason Bourne is found by a fisherman crew, without his memory and riddled with bullets. Bourne begins the search for his identity while soon being hunted by numerous Treadstone assassins including the Professor (Clive Owen). Also along for the ride is Marie Kuetz (Franka Potente), a young German woman who is down on her luck, yet begins a relationship with Bourne that soon goes into the romantic.

While it sounds pedestrian, the characterization and frenetic action sequences add nuances to the film that most action flicks fail to utilize. Really, it’s the decision to tone down the action and allow for the characters to grow with quiet scenes of introspection and remorse. The final battle between Bourne and the Professor could have been done in your usual hand to hand combat with the two beating the hell out of each other like Greek supermen. Instead, Liman relies on suspense, filming the battle in a field, making it a war of wits, not of muscle and brawn.

Damon’s Bourne is understandably vulnerable, he’s absolutely confused about the situation he has found himself in, but like an animal stuck in a corner, he knows how to get himself out of a jam, with deadly precision if necessary. The viewer is sympathetic to Bourne’s cause, though as time goes on, it becomes apparent that this man has done some horrible deeds. At the same time, as much as the viewer wants Bourne to get away, there is an understanding as to why Treadstone is after him. After all, these are not nice people, no one, not even the good Marie, are saints.

The film was a huge box office success, paving the way for the sequel The Bourne Supremacy which would be released two years later. Liman, unfortunately, would not return due to his frustration with studio interference. But, the rest of the cast would be back to continue the fine tradition began with this very film, one that would finally make the producers of the Bond films to change their ways and come out with a product similar to the Bourne films. Which is probably one of the finest compliments one can give to this movie. It was a trendsetter, albeit a subtle one. But, it changed things, and in the long run, for the better.

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