[With Jason Bourne 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 work 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.
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.
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.
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.
[Tomorrow: The Bourne Supremacy]