On a long enough timeline, James Bond will always be the premier name in cinematic spydom simply because he’s lasted the longest and that’s given him the luxury of changing with the times and thus remaining relevant to many subsequent generations. However, that doesn’t mean that the old dog can’t learn some new tricks when audiences feel he’s beginning to outstay his welcome and so while Pierce Brosnan’s CGI stunt double was parasailing through a deeply unconvincing ice field, a new, grittier, challenger appeared and was immediately a breath of fresh air to Bond’s exaggerated antics. He too was a character from a series of spy novels and he even shared the superspy’s initials, but its here where the similarities ended as Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne appeared on the scene, sans memory, and proceeded to shake up the entire genre for decades to come.
Dragged from the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in the midst of a raging storm, a man with multiple bullet holes in his back is hauled upon a fishing boat and is nursed back to health. However, thanks to an unhelpful bout of psychogenic amnesia, he has no clue as to who he is and how he ended up in this predicament and the only real clue he has is a tiny laser projector found implanted in his hip that points him to a safe deposit box in Zürich. Along the way, this mystery man accidently finds that he is not only fluent in numerous languages, but he’s startlingly proficient in whupping ass too as two german police officers find to their detriment and when he finally gets to the bank he finds that he has numerous passports that have numerous aliases for him. After settling for the name Jason Bourne he sees on the American passport and inflicting some damage after trying to evade the authorities by ducking into the American consulate and the fighting his way out again, he meets up with Marie Kreutz who agrees, for a fee, to drive him to an address he has in Paris.
However, while Jason and his new ally ricochet all over Europe in or order, the shadowy government agency known as Treadstone is desperately trying to locate their unwittingly wayward agent after an off the books assassination went wrong and Bourne ended up in the sea. Ran by hardliner Alexander Conklin who is desperately trying to mop up his mess before his superiors mop them up for him, Treadstone aims its cadre of lethal sleeper agents and its surveillance teams in the direction of Jason and Marie under the technically correct assumtion that Bourne has gone rogue. As assassins and authorities rain down all about him, can Jason finally find out who he really is before Treadstone puts a bullet through his already addled memory?
Forged in a complicated filming process that saw the studio unsure on how to proceed with a spy thriller with government baddies in the wake of 9/11, The Bourne Identity emerged to be something of a groundbreaker in the era of unsubtle mega-blockbusters as director Doug Liman’s indie roots gives the while enterprise the skittish energy of a Red Bull drunk Jack Russell. Taking only the basic premise Ludlum’s opening novel and updating the politics (it was published in the 80’s when things were a little different), the director fused his own distrust with the government with the titular hero’s memory issues to give us a protagonist quite unlike any other. Sure, he could probably slaughter you with your own thumb, but his amnesia and his subsequent quest to literally discover himself gives us a government trained killing machine with vulnerabilities that feel genuine and actually succeed in allowing us to root for him despite the fact his previous job was shooting people in the face in order to affect the flow of global foreign policy.
The concept is invaluable, but what makes us really support Bourne is the humanity the character is given thanks to Matt Damon as he crashes the action genre with what would become a signature character. However, you don’t hire Good Will Hunting to just be Arnold Schwarzenegger, so the movie also adds a fair amount of brain in with its brawn as our scatty lead wades through obstacles without a single gadget or glib comeback to be seen. The level of smarts displayed by Bourne ends up being as sublimely low key thrilling as any explosion as movie adds tiny, subtle touches like taking a radio from an unconscious guard to track his enemies moments, or swiping a fire safety sign off the wall in order to have a floor plan to hand and the movie even doesn’t have to over-explain why he’s doing these things too, as Liman’s style makes these things so fluid and intuitive that you pick them up on a purely instinctual level that instantly makes you feel smarter, even when Bourne’s disarming a knife-swinging threat with a biro.
Not only does the dialed back scale make the fight scenes seem more frentic, but it also works extraordinarily well elsewhere too, whether it’s the niftily shot car chase where Jason and Marie avoid Parisian cops by thrashing the balls off a battered Mini Metro, or when Bourne plays cat and mouse on a farm with another operative played by Clive Owen and if the finale feels like matters have finally run low on steam, that has probably more to do with the climax needing to be reshoots more than anything else.
Still, despite thumping pace, the beating heart of it all remains Damon himself, playing a man with no identity with quiet restraint as he internally freaks out at his predicament. “How can I know all that and not know who i am?” he laments after reeling off a laundry list of weirdly specific things he’s noticed by sitting in a diner for barely five minutes. But what separates him from Bond (who would predictably switch his style to that of a more Bourne-ian persuasion with its Daniel Craig era) is that its hero is a much more sensitive soul thanks to his ailment, which frees him up to be way more relatable. He’s a good listener and he’s fiercely loyal to Franka Potente’s Marie (“How could I forget about you, you’re the only person I know.”) with their relationship being firmly that of equals as Bourne’s lack of memory makes him finally desire human contact and not just endless vodka martinis and a quick screw.
Any issues the film has probably stem from the fact that it’s quite experimental for it’s kind and it leaves a fair amount of threads dangling, with Chris Cooper’s grouchy government villain only hinting at the alarming amount of secret wetworks operations the government may have stowed away somewhere and numerous other sleeper agents unaccounted for (thankfully picked up and explored in the sequels).
Still, not even the inclusion of Moby over the end credits can dampen the enthusiasm and this refreshingly smaller scale dive into the murky waters of international espionage contains winning amounts of heart and brains to go with its fists and lack of memory.
Bourne to rule.