The Bourne films represents what is probably the best Trilogy of recent years (Lord of the Rings is the only other real contender) the influence the franchise has had has been well reported especially on James Bond but the first film, The Bourne identity is a very much underrated film. In some ways it is the best of the trilogy. Directed by Doug Liman whose previous films include Swingers and Go, he went on to direct Mr & Mrs Smith. The film and Liman’s influence on the trilogy is often overshadowed by the Paul Greengrass directed sequels. Warning this review contains a lot of plot detail including spoilers.
The film opens more like a mystery than a spy thriller. With no credit sequence we jump straight into the film with a body floating in the Mediterranean. He is picked up by a fishing boat where we discover he is still alive. It is soon revealed the man (Matt Damon) has amnesia. Matt Damon was a strange choice for the film as he had never really been associated as a leading man in an action film. He had obviously taken the leading role in films like Good Will Hunting and The Rainmaker and his biggest film The Talented Mr. Ripley. But the first two are much smaller films and the third one he is well supported by Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and a wonderfully over the top Philip Seymour Hoffman. The part of Jason Bourne had previously been offered to Brad Pitt who had turned it down in favour of Spy Game (a great and much underrated film but not as good as Bourne!). The other actor in serious contention was Matthew McConaughey
Two bullets are removed from the mans back along with a mysterious device that is hidden beneath the skin of his hip. It contains a laser that displays details of a Swiss bank account. This is a slightly clunky plot device that is necessary to keep the story moving but is easily accepted by the viewer. Two weeks after he is pulled from sea he is back on dry land as the ship returns to port in Marseilles. He catches the train to Zurich where he opens the safety deposit box that the information in his hip directs him to. It is at this point we learn two things firstly the night before entering the bank an encounter with the police shows the mans fighting ability. The second is his name Jason Bourne. We discover this from his passport in the safety deposit box. Other things included in it are a gun (9mm SIG) some contact lenses, a watch, passports from various countries and a lot of cash. He leaves the gun an takes almost everything else.
Away from Bourne we hear the name Treadstone for the first time and also see the deposed dictator of an unnamed African country telling of how he survived an assignation attempt. Back with Bourne he goes to the American embassy to avoid the local police. When he is identified and is forced to flea the embassy he is working purely on instinct. This is not the usual spy thriller fodder, he does not start a shootout, instead choosing to steal a map and radio to avoid capture before climbing down the side of the building. It is shortly after this that he meets Maria played by Fraka Potente (after Sarah Polley who Liman directed in Go turned it down). This is interesting casting as Liman claims to have been influenced by the style of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run that also stared Fraka Potente. This is perfect casting as Potente offers the perfect blend of vulnerability and grit as well as real chemistry with Matt Damon. It is around this time that the network of spies starts grinding into gear as a group of people start crunching information before activating a trio of operatives to track him down. This is a spy thriller that blends the excitement (if not the glamour) of James bond with the gritty realism of a John Le Carre story. It is often asked on the internet who would win a fight between Bond an Bourne? I think a more interesting question would be who would win a game of chess between them?
Bourne pays Maria for a lift to Paris where he has discovered that he lives. As he tries to explain what he is learning about himself we discover more about the way Bourne’s mind works, analysing everything without even thinking about it. The viewer knows that he is a government assassin long before he does. When one of the operatives, The Professor kills Wombosi it is clear that Bourne is being set up by his former employers. At this point Bourne still has the innocence and vulnerability of a child. When Maria jokes that he will forget her he replies with total sincerity “How could I forget you? You’re the only person I know!” Even at this point we can see the bond forming between the pair all be it most of the signs coming from Maria. When they get to Paris they discover next clue just before the first Tredstone operative arrives. The ensuing fight includes Bourns first use of an everyday object as a weapon, not as memorable as the rolled magazine in the second film but equally as brutal in its simplicity he uses a BIC pen to disarm the killer. Shortly after this in a subtle but telling scene we see the first real indication of Bourns growing feelings for Maria. It looks like he is going to leave her and get on the a train but then changes his mind and goes back to her. Without a word spoken we can only guess at his intentions and motivations are but when he gets back to the car and finds her gone he appears devastated. When she returns they are sat in her battered old Mini and don’t have time to discuss things before Bourne asks out of nowhere “ Do you take care of this car?” we know something is going to happen but exactly what comes as a surprise. Without the glamour of a flash car it comes as a great surprise as we get one of the best car chases in recent movie history as the little red Mini drives around the Paris streets reminiscent of three minis in Turin’s city streets in another film.
Brian Cox is perfectly cast as Ward Abbott, like his character Nathan Waldman (who also deals with an amnesiac operative) in The Long Kiss Goodnight. you are never comply sure of his motivation or agenda. Chris Cooper’s Conklin is more straightforward but still perfectly played. Clive Owen plays a small but important part as The Professor, one of the Tredstone assassins. Julia Stiles is an inspired choice in a small role that develops throughout the next two films, it is also worth noting as her first real grown up role after a successful career in teenage roles.
The final act is well orchestrated as Bourne turns the tables and goes after the hunters. Just enough is left unsaid to give a satisfactory narrative closure but leaving plenty to allow a sequel. The film is one of those rare productions that is better than the book it is based on. The original Robert Ludlum novel is full of great ideas but is a convoluted mess that is anchored in the era it was written. The film is a timeless modern classic that will become more appreciated in time. Listen out at the end for the song Extreme Ways by Moby, this becomes something of a Bourne signature as it is used in the next two films as well.
For those who haven’t seen the Bourne films now is the time to pick up the DVD box set and watch them, you won’t be disappointed. If you have seen them they are well worth a second look paying particular attention to the first underrated film. Like no other film of recent years they are able to combine the action of a Die Hard movie with the suspense of a Le Carre story with the setting of a James bond film without the baggage and ludicrous gadgets. Take note that I haven’t mentioned Ethan Hunt, Mission impossible is in different world and can not compare to this new realistic spy thriller. Bourne is the man who has reinvented the spy thriller.
Look out for more on the second and third films as I watch them again before the fourth one is released in two years time.