Bourne Again: Matt Revisits THE BOURNE IDENTITY

by     Posted 2 years, 75 days ago

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[With The Bourne Legacy set to open this Friday, we'll be taking a look back at the original Bourne trilogy.  These reviews will contain spoilers since the movies have been out for years.]

In the years following his breakthrough success with Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon‘s career had hit a snag.  He was a talented actor who had made a series of bad choices in terms of leading roles.  Furthermore, he had never taken on the role of an action hero, but Universal took a chance on the actor, and had him star in the thriller The Bourne Identity.  Director Doug Liman has also never done an action film before, and had made his name on the indie features Swingers and Go.  Strangely, neither the director nor his star does a particularly great job with the film, but it was a hit and led to two excellent features once Paul Greengrass took over the franchise.  I didn’t care much for The Bourne Identity when I saw it back when it was released in 2002.  I hadn’t revisited the movie until today, and unfortunately, it still has a lot of problems.  Thankfully, these problems then serve to illustrate what makes the character works and separates him from other action heroes.

A man (Damon) is found drifting in the middle of the ocean, and his unconscious body is pulled out of the water by a passing fishing boat.  The ship’s doctor pulls two bullets out of the mystery man’s back, and when the man regains consciousness, he doesn’t know who he is.  His case of amnesia extends as far as not knowing his name or his past, but he knows how to do everything else.  He can read maps, he can speak multiple languages, and as he later discovers, he can kick everyone’s ass.  In his search to find out his identity, he discovers his name (or at least one of his many names) is Jason Bourne.  He gets on the radar of a shadowy government agency called Treadstone, led by Conklin (Chris Cooper) and his supervisor Ward Abbott (Brian Cox).  In his attempt to flee from the cops and Treadstone, Bourne falls in with Marie (Franka Potente), a young woman who agrees to drive him from Zurich to Paris.  From there, the two go on the run together as Treadstone and their operatives close in.

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There are several major issues with Bourne Identity.  The first is, ironically, the lack of an identity.  Liman’s direction has almost no personality.  He clearly enjoys sending his protagonist across Europe, and the setting does help provide a nice escapism to the flick.  But the majority of the action scenes lack energy or focus.  The film’s big car chase is so forced that it almost reaches the point where Bourne may as well turn to Marie and say, “We’re going to go on a car chase now.”  Liman is playing by the rules of a safe, disposable spy thriller.  There’s also not much thought in to how Treadstone operates.  Late in the movie, Conklin tells Bourne he’s a failed $30 million experiment.  Treadstone also has operatives all over the world, but it looks like the central office is in a broom closet in the CIA’s basement.  Just because Treadstone is a shadowy organization, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get a nice office, which would help convey a sense of actual power.

The other half of the film’s lack of identity comes from Damon.  Damon is a terrific actor, and one of the best working today.  He was still finding his way in 2002, and he has a problem with Jason Bourne in this movie because he doesn’t know who Bourne is.  Bourne is simply a set of skills in search of a personality.  Damon doesn’t know how to play the character beyond a sense of occasional frustration and intense focus.  The film’s only joke comes at the expense of how uptight the character is.  Just because Bourne is trying to discover his past, it doesn’t mean the script and Damon couldn’t have supplied the confused spy with a personality.

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Marie is intended to draw out that personality, but she never does.  It’s a forced relationship with no chemistry between the lead actors.  The film at least has the good sense to have the characters’ hook-up arise out of the intensity of the situation rather than a full-fledged love affair.  It’s one of the few honest moments in their relationship where there seems to be a connection that arises out of the characters’ circumstances.  But aside from their sexual liaison, the majority of Bourne and Marie’s relationship is a constant tug-of-war between Bourne wanting to send Marie away for her protection or keeping her close for her protection.  The script has to keep Marie on screen because she’s intended to bring out more of Bourne’s personality, but she never does.  Instead, she’s deadweight, and the story is forced to keep finding reasons to keep her around.

From a screenwriting 101-standpoint, it’s not an ill-conceived idea.  There’s a reason a lot of stories have two leads, especially if the two leads are on a road trip, which is what The Bourne Identity is—two characters traveling across Europe to find out what happened to one of them.  However, Bourne works best when Marie leaves the story in the third act, and Bourne goes on his mission solo.  It’s when the movie finally strikes the balance between Bourne’s power at controlling a situation, and his powerlessness at trying to understand his past.  Bourne has Conklin dead-to-rights in their big confrontation, but Conklin has all the answers.

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The flashback scene is where everything clicks together in a way the rest of the movie rarely does.  It’s not about the reveal of Bourne getting shot in the back when he botched his assassination attempt on Wombosi.  It’s discovering that Bourne didn’t carry out his mission because he saw Wombosi’s kids in the room.  Sure, it’s a little sappy, but it’s the key moment where the identity of the title comes in to play.  Conklin believes Bourne is nothing more than a weapon, and up until this scene, hardly anything in the movie gives us reason to believe otherwise.  Bourne’s decision not to assassinate Wombosi is what essentially kills the cold-hearted Bourne of the past, and allows the new one to be reborn.  The change didn’t come when he was shot in the back, but when he decided that he couldn’t remain the soldier he was created to be.

All of this is surrounded by the movie’s best set piece.  The face-off between Bourne and The Professor (Clive Owen) is also a good scene (it’s one of Owen’s best performances because his character is absolutely captivating even though it’s a silent, restrained performance; The Professor doesn’t even speak until he’s about to die), but Bourne’s escape from Conklin’s goons is tremendous.  Watching Bourne use a fat guy to cushion his fall, and shoot another bad guy in the head on the way down is one of the franchise’s highlights.

The Bourne Identity ends on a happy note with Bourne tracking down Marie to live happily ever after, which is fine since it’s the last scene.  But the film’s third act reveals what makes Bourne work, and it’s that the character works better alone.  Damon has the screen presence to hold our attention, and forcing him to engage in small talk and figuring out ways to cart along a love-interest stops us from getting inside his head.  Bourne doesn’t need a partner, and the character’s tragedy is that he has to be alone in order to protect himself and anyone who might get close.  The next two films figured this out, and the series became a far superior beast once Jason Bourne stopped going on the run, and started going on the hunt.

Rating: 6.0 out of 10

[Tomorrow: The Bourne Supremacy]

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  • filmmaniac111

    damn this is so harsh! Bourne Identity is still awesome -.-

  • dave

    I think u must of watched a different film to everyone else. Bourne identity rewrote the book on action movies. Lacking energy and focus? The intimate and dynamic hand to hand fight sequences are some of the most exciting action scenes of recent years. The escape from the embassy is also a stand out scene. Matt damon doesnt play bourne with a personality because he doesnt have one ( bourne not damon lol) hes a brainwashed assassin, the point was made clear in the movie and the sequels. His personality develops as he recovers his memory and breaks the brainwashing. Its not as polished as the sequels but still a solid 8/10.

  • Thesaurusrs

    Wow, in many respects I couldn’t disagree more. The lost look on bourne’s(Damon’s) face when he steps off the fishing boat and into a world he’s never seen before is heartwrending, as well as the scene in the kid’s bedroom. I adore Damon in this role and think he absolutely crushes it.

  • Peter McPhee

    Again I say, why do you have a person reviewing movies who hates everything he sees and knows absolutely nothing about film-making? I’s this guy the boss’s son?

  • Mike

    I ran this review through my Goldberg Review Translator and the results say the movie is “B+”

    • Flyersfan20

      Other people might not find it as funny, but I almost spit my soda out at that one, thank you good sir :P

  • J

    Goldberg is a joke. Why should we care that he dislikes a classic movie that came out 10 years ago. He doesnt know what a good movie is. His nitpicking is always about how a movie should have done something he expected. And its not like he is really harsh and only gives the great movies a decent score, he rips apart TDKR and praises Transformers with a straight face. Find a new job

    • Weeks

      Very true.

  • Weeks

    “neither the director nor his star does a particularly great job with the film”

    I couldn’t disagree with this statement more. The reviewer seems to think a good performance is a flashy performance. Damon was subtle and convincing at playing a character who’s basically the loneliest man in the world. Liman had a light touch that had audiences guessing. It’s great storytelling.

    • StefH

      You are absolutely right! I honestly don’t know what this dude wanted Damon to do (acting wise) honestly. The directing doesn’t have the same unique style as the other films do granted, but this film set out to be the anti-Bond film with the realism and slowness.

      Also I don’t agree with his comments about Marie either. I really found their relationship believable, which is why the start of Supremacy is such a heart wrenching shocker.

      This was on TV the other night in the UK as well. And I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Mr_Skyfish

    Are you mad? That film was excellent in my book! I found this film to be more of a Drama-Suspense-Thriller.

  • Matt1

    “He (Damon) has a problem with this movie because he doesn’t know who Bourne is yet…”
    THE CHARACTER DOESN’T KNOW WHO HE IS YET!!!!
    That’s like saying “the problem with The Avengers is that the actors in the leading roles all try to be superheroes”!!
    Goldberg really doesn’t have a clue!

  • Strong Enough

    Matt Goldberg article always gets the most comments. seems like the same haters always coming back and reading his stuff :)

    • Flyersfan20

      Are they reading his stuff because it has his name on it or are they reading his stuff [like this article] because the topic he is writing about interests them. I doubt they’re reading this because it says “Matt Goldberg” on it. They’re reading this article because they obviously are interested in The Bourne Identity. It could have been Frosty or Chitwood or anybody else writing this article and people would have read it because the topic interests them.

  • mattinacan

    i disagree, bourne identity is the best of the three

    • ScaredForMovies

      I also thought the Bourne Identity was the best of the three. The 2nd was pretty good but felt a little too similar to the first. By the third the series had lost me. It felt like Groundhog day.

      • Oliver

        Yep, best of the three :)

  • Turner

    While I too disagree with much of the review, it’s only one persons opinion and everyone likes different things . One of the elements that I really loved about the first movie was the relationship between Bourne and Marie. It’s the beginning of a relationship that will be absolutely crucial to Bourne’s evolution in the following two movies. In the “Bourne Supremacy,” Marie’s death creates a powerful thematic element that elevates Bourne as a character. The entire second movie is really about “choice” (which Marie points out right before she’s shot). Bourne must choose whether to become the pre-programmed killer the government wants him to be or the compassionate human being Marie believes he can be (hinted at in the first movie, when he hesitates killing Wombosi (sp?) because of his children; and in the second movie, the powerful scene where Bourne talks to the girl about her parents’ murder). If it weren’t for the Bourne/Marie relationship being so effective in the first movie, the second wouldn’t be as memorable – in my humble opinion

  • wha..wha..what?

    Jeez! Everytime I do this to myself. I click on the article without looking who wrote it. It took me half a paragraph to skip right to the comment box.

  • Jason

    I couldn’t disagree more, The Bourne Identity is still my favorite of the films, I felt the relationship was strong, the action well choreographed, and Damon riding, er… flying? a bad guy down like an elevator has to be one of the best single guy kicking ass scenes in film history.

    I almost walked out of the second film on multiple occasions, Greengrass’ camera made the action completely disappear in a blur of what I can only imagine was a caffeinated frenzy, just awful to experience IMHO. While I understand Marie’s death and I accept it for all the reasons Turner mentions, it, combined with the horrible camera work on the chase and fights, makes me choose to ignore Supremacy’s existence. Ultimatum tried to step up the action and while the camera work was slightly improved over Supremacy, how could it not be though, I felt trying to tie Julia Stiles into some convoluted backstory that we were apparently never meant to know the full truth about just made me roll my eyes and try to zone out and just enjoy the adrenalin of Damon kicking ass, with limited success on my part.

    I am looking forward to seeing Renner in this fresh take on the material and tying the events of Damon’s films into it is something I am interested to see.

  • Phil

    I think your take is mistaken. Bourne as a character being an enigma still never comes across as the macho tagline spouting action hero that dominated the 20 years of actions films before. no “make my day.”, “I’ll be back” “Yippee Ki Ai mutherfucker” type spouting. He is solving the mystery of who he is, but demonstrates all through the movie that despite not remembering he’s at heart a decent/sadistic person. When attacked he can fight back by instinct, but his interactions with Marie are at the core of why we like him. And before the flashback, he does assure Marie, that nothing tragic will befall the children, he doesn’t kidnap Marie, he asks for her help, and pays her. He warns her not to stay with him for her own safety, He has no contempt or ill will for the assassins that come after him, just as before he is defending himself.

    Bourne is a refreshing hero because he is cool, and competent, is the wronged man, but is never out for revenge, he chases around rising to the dangerous challenges, and for the most part he always has us rooting for him because of his understated decency.

  • paul tracy

    Mr. Goldberg. You’ll suffer well for your intelligence. Wade it out. You’ll be fine.

    ~ p

  • Tim

    Wow. I mean, WOW.

    Where to start. Okay, breathe in, breathe out. Phew.

    1:
    Matt Damon’s career hadn’t hit a “snag” after Good Will Hunting. Really?
    Let’s see what movies came out after “Good Will Hunting.”
    You’ve got “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Gerry,” to name a few. Where’s the snag?! If anything his career picked up tremendously.

    2:
    “Strangely, neither the director nor his star does a particularly great job with the film…”
    Okay, I had to stop there because it seems like you are being negative just to be negative even if you don’t really feel that way.

    What movie did you watch?? Certainly not the one I watched. If you had watched “The Bourne Identity” you would have seen how brilliant the movie was.

    I know you will probably never read these comments, but I had to get this off my chest.

  • Russell

    It always bothered me that the sweater Bourne wears when he gets off the boat has two bullet holes when in fact he was shot through the rubber suit. Weird continuity error in an otherwise groundbreaking action movie for our generation.

  • Gomez

    I usually never comment on anything but…..shit this guy is totally wrong

  • Mike

    I have been on this site so many times and have never commented on it because of Matt`s point of view which could be weird or differetbut this article is definitely right. :)

  • fitzchiv

    matt goldberg is an absolute joke, its becoming obvious that he writes contentious and negative articles to bait and provoke, its impossible to take him seriously as a result. does anybody know why collider publish this drivel? is he related to somebody who owns this site or something?

  • Sal

    I would really really love to read a Tomb Raider and TR2 the cradle of life review by you. Personally I love those two films and I think that critics have been hard on them (especially watching again now next to action adventures a decade later) and they were unappreciated. Angelina jolie looked the part and she really needs to come back in her tomb raiding boots and kick some ass. I undestand there’s a reason behind this bourne identity review (this new wannabe bourne movie) but I think it would be great to re-review “old” movies from time to time. Thanxxx

  • John Snitizen

    I think I’ve finally figured Goldberg out- he’s actually a failed screenwriter, and he’s angry about it.

  • Paul Kitchingman

    This is the 1st time I’ve commented on Collider (well done Matt for dragging me to the table). This review is essentially wrong. The muddled, jerky, Greengrass camera work is nauseating. The quick cut fight scenes lose a lot of emphasis and skill (Batman films are massively guilty of this). I love the later two, but they have their own issues.

  • Nate H

    Yeah, I have to agree with the majority here that this review is misguided. I quite enjoyed The Bourne Identity – probably the best film of the three. I like Bourne Ultimatum because there’s more action, but Identity is clearly the best. I never look at the names of the people who write the reviews, but I can’t help but notice Goldberg because people are so vocal about him being wrong so often – and they’re usually right.

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  • Joey Boy

    I agree with the majority. I think The Bourned Identity is the best in the trilogy. It’s a good character development of Jason Bourne and him and Marie has chemistry. It’s absolutely great acting from both Matt and Franka.

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