The Bourne Identity (2002) directed by Doug Liman stars Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Franka Potente (Marie), Chris Cooper (Conklin), Brian Cox (Ward Abbot), Clive Owen (the Professor), Julia Stiles (Nicolette), and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Wombosi).
A man is fished out of the ocean off the coast of France with two bullet wounds in his back, a clever laser doohickey in his hip, and retrograde amnesia. The only clue to his identity is the information that leads him to a safe deposit box in Zurich, which is where he finds enough disturbing Intel about himself to name himself Jason Bourne.
It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that he’s being hunted and that he has some rather unusual skills. The plot is sophisticated enough in all its simplicity that I, for one, don’t really have a problem with going along with it. It’s that age-old existential “who am I?” just taken to a more viscerally violent level. If you handle something like that poorly, then the whole thing folds in on itself like a cheap lawn chair and that’s where this movie actually displays its intelligence.
A lot of it has to do with casting. Matt Damon is believable as a physical action hero, he has the physique for it without being too brawny. He’s also a good enough actor to give more than one layer to the emotions and intelligence necessary for this to be credible. His accidental ally/love interest is played by Franka Potente, the German born actress/singer, which again is a smart choice. Her Marie is not an innocent, or a damsel-in-distress, but shows all the trepidation and shock of a random bystander who gets thrown into some pretty amazingly unexpected circumstance and still manages to hold her own.
The hunters are an obviously deeply covert organization within the American government, and especially those who have headed up the “Treadstone project”, namely Conlin (Chris Cooper) and Ward Abbot (Brian Cox), both of whom are character actors and very much believable as heavy hitters within the nebulous system of covert operations that seem a little too covert for their own good.
The reason why I name them hunted and hunters is that there really are no good guys in the world of Bourne. It’s an intelligent genre piece, which in turn means that it’s heavy on the action, the car chases, the brutally violent hand-to-hand and the pragmatic approach to using whatever means necessary to get out of a bad situation but as a viewer, you still don’t know what’s coming up next. It is also smart to give Bourne more than one enemy, and even smarter is the fact that once he does starts getting an inkling about who he really is, he doesn’t like what he finds out.
There are several things about The Bourne Identity that I enjoy, just for the eye for detail and the feel of it, like the fact that it’s shot on location in France, Prague, Zurich, Rome, and Mykonos. It makes for much, much better European scenery when you’re actually in Europe. I also like little things like the fact that the highly skilled and well-funded department run by Conklin has a lot of computers and other tech support up and running, but they still stick a map on the wall and a pin in the map when Bourne surfaces in Paris. There’s something reassuring about the thought that a good old-fashioned pin in an actual map on a cork board is still used instead of some high-tech super-duper 3D laser projection. It says something about the character Bourne that he uses a fire extinguisher to break a padlock off a door and then neatly hangs it back on its hook on the wall. Little things like that lend integrity to the premise in my humble opinion.
It also works well when it comes to the actual thriller element due to its unpredictability. As for pacing and editing, it has this quirk of taking a moment when there is no music, no obvious gearing up for anything and then running headlong into the next chase sequence, or the next brawl. When we are in motion the viewer gets invited, there is a lot of hand-held camera footage and edgy fast-paced cutting that lends to the forward momentum, the kinetic side of things.
The basic plot is perhaps not the strongest feature of this movie, but as far as I’m concerned that doesn’t really matter. I don’t actually mind genre conventions when they are used cleverly enough. I certainly think they are here. It’s really hard for me, personally, to take the actual ending at face value and not be cynical about it, but that’s my short-coming. To my mind this is the strongest movie in the franchise, despite that, and as such it is well worth watching.