Published on June 6th, 2002 | by Padraic Coffey


The Bourne Identity (2002)

Whatever criticisms may be levelled at Steven Spielberg – his propensity for mawkishness, his desecration of the legacy of Indiana Jones with 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – one of the more abstract might be his contribution to the PG-13 certificate in the United States. Now commonplace, the PG-13 certificate was introduced after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, directed and co-produced by Spielberg respectively, courted controversy over their content. This gradually led to a neutering of many studios’ summer output, and once-adult franchises like the Die Hard and Terminator series having to bow to censors and churn out pallid, anaemic efforts like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Die Hard 4.0. However, some films work within these parameters without compromising their tough, adult edge. The Bourne Identity is one such film.

Despite his extraordinary success in terms of book sales, American author Robert Ludlum’s back catalogue had not been mined often for cinematic adaptations. Sam Peckinpah’s final film, The Osterman Weekend, took as its source Ludlum’s novel of the same, as did John Frankenheimer when he brought Ludlum’s The Holcroft Covenant to the big screen. These, however, were not hugely profitable motion pictures. Though never out of vogue, cinematic espionage thrillers did appear frequently in the 1990s. Pierce Brosnan had revitalised the James Bond series with 1995’s Goldeneye (though by the early 2000s it had threatened to slip back into cheesy Roger Moore-era territory) while the first two entries in the Mission Impossible franchise grossed over a billion dollars collectively. Even Jack Ryan, the perennial hero of Tom Clancy’s fiction, appeared in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, played not by Harrison Ford or Alec Baldwin but Ben Affleck.

Affleck and Matt Damon had of course made a huge impact, while still in their twenties, as the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Good Will Hunting. Permanently paired from that moment on, Damon was given the chance to equal or surpass his off-screen colleague with 2002’s The Bourne Identity. Not burdened with the legacy of another actor in the role – though The Bourne Identity had been made into a television mini-series in 1988 – Damon created an iconic film hero, and fans of the genre lapped it up. Plot-wise, The Bourne Identity is a straight up chase movie. The body of a man is found floating in the Mediterranean sea by fishermen. Upon regaining consciousness, the man discovers he has amnesia, but speaks a variety of languages and has reflexes which make one-on-one combat a walk in the park. He must now determine his identity, while evading those who want him dead.

Because The Bourne Identity was introducing filmgoers to Damon’s Jason Bourne, any convoluted plot, the likes of which had made so many Bond films unpalatable, is dispensed with. Bourne moves from his rescuers’ boat to Switzerland and then France, accompanied by Marie (Franka Potente), a girl he bribes to transport him across Europe. While Bourne’s search to ascertain his place in the world is compelling, one need do little else but enjoy the many set pieces peppered throughout the film. When Bourne’s deadly hand-to-hand combat skills first rear their head upon confrontation with two Swiss policemen, it is a stunning, teasingly brief moment, anticipating the action to come. Later there is the notably vicious (particularly for a PG-13 movie) fight with an intruder in Bourne’s apartment – when a ballpoint point is put to some deadly use – and a superbly edited car chase through the streets of Paris (see John Frankenheimer’s Ronin for another variation on this apparent “Paris car chase” trope). Matt Damon proves himself more than capable of the transition from wordy character-driven pieces like Good Will Hunting to a full-on action role.

Director Doug Liman, likewise, proves him adapt at switching genres. Best known previously for the cult comedy hit Swingers and the Pulp Fiction-aping Go, he handles the action sequences with aplomb, though cannot resist some of the sillier spy-movie clichés, such as when a rival assassin (a near-silent Clive Owen) confides in Bourne during his dying moments. The film’s ending explicitly hints at further instalments, though Liman would not go on to direct the two subsequent films in Damon’s Bourne trilogy; that task fell to British director Paul Greengrass, known for his docudramas Bloody Sunday and United 93. So profitable were these films, Universal Pictures could not resist furthering the saga with 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner, promoted with the revisionist tagline of ‘There Was Never Just One.’ Nonetheless, the original Bourne Identity holds up as a top-drawer spy thriller. Ironically, for a film series to arrive decades after Sean Connery’s first stint at James Bond, Bourne’s influence on the Daniel Craig 007 films is palatable. Compare Casino Royale‘s brutal opening men’s-room brawl with any of Jason Bourne’s scraps, and you’ll see the correlation.


About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.

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