The Bourne Identity (2002)
Starring: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Julia Stiles, Gabriel Mann
Directed By: Doug Liman
Why it made the list: If it sounded like I preferred Paul Greengrass’ sequel last entry, that was unintentional. While it makes the changes necessary to keep the series from spinning out of control (like most sequels), I still give the slight nod to Doug Liman’s first entry in the series. As I wrote, Liman creates the template for the series with this film, starting with a more cerebral take on the modern action hero, the European setting (one of the small handful of elements taken from Robert Ludlum’s book), and the foot chase/fight scene/car chase structure. Liman’s style certainly has more sheen than the Greengrass-directed sequels, but not so much that it feels glossy.
The biggest difference between this film and its sequels is the interplay between Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and Franka Potente’s Marie. This softens the Bourne character, letting us get to know him and giving Damon a chance exhibit a more likeable charisma. Greengrass’ sequels may be more intense, but Liman’s is more fun.
Spoiler Specifics: Amnesia is overused as a plot device (particularly since it’s usually very convenient when it comes and goes), but it works here, allowing the audience to get to know Jason Bourne while he gets to know himself. I’m not sure the audience warms up to Bourne as quickly (or at all) if he’s a bad-ass assassin right off the bat. This way, we get to see him as a manipulated tool, instead of seeing him as culpable for his actions (allowing the series to not have to tone down the killer Bourne used to be), setting up the government-as-evil-conspirators angle more effectively than similar films.
Damon and Potente exhibit real chemistry in this movie, which is actually pretty uncommon for action films, despite the fact that they usually attempt to shoehorn in love interests in order to check off more marketing demos. I argued last post that Marie’s removal from the series ultimately worked, but that doesn’t mean that her presence weakened the first film. It was necessary to give Bourne someone to talk to in order to discover the most basic things about himself, and to make a real human connection to give the character humanity (which is missing from every other Treadstone agent we encounter). It helps that Potente is able to infuse the series with an equal amount of intelligence as does Damon, and even more heart (I also like that she initiates the love scene in the film, making her more assertive than the average love interest). So while I ultimately accept her absence from the subsequent films, it’s too bad we didn’t get more of the element she brings to The Bourne Identity.
Significant scene: I mentioned last time my love for the cerebral touches in the middle of action scenes in the Bourne series, another element started by Liman here. The first instance is in the embassy escape, where he grabs the fire safety floor plan off the wall to figure out how to escape. My favourite is prior to the car chase, where he quickly realizes the cops have spotted him, and he calmly studies a street map, committing as much of Paris’ streets to memory as he can, all the while discussing the car’s potential weaknesses with Marie while giving her a final chance to bail. I love how he waits until the very last second to make his move, taking full advantage of the limited planning time he has (sadly, you can’t see any of this preamble in the camcordered clip below).
Then one of the great car chases of the decade kicks off, with Bourne holding off Parisian police in an old VW beater. Too often car chases are more about the vehicle than the driver, coming off as commercials for the machine. Marie’s car is tiny, underpowered, old, and very European, but Jason Bourne’s training gets the most out of it, darting in and out of traffic on the streets, sidewalks, and boulevards of Paris. It’s tense, exciting, and like most of the series, plausible enough to keep the audience in the manufactured reality of the film.