The Bourne Identity (2002)
Spy thriller 'The Bourne Identity' came out of seemingly nowhere in 2002 and took everyone by surprise by being very, very good. Before its release, the subject matter seemed fairly generic and the casting of Matt Damon as a super spy assassin type seemed a strange choice. The trailer looked exciting though, and the reviews were positive. When I finally saw it, the film easily exceeded my expectations. Though it wasn't fully apparent to me on first viewing, repeat viewings have solidified in my mind its status as a truly excellent film.
It begins with a man, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), shot and floating in the Mediterranean Sea being rescued by a fishing ship. He is brought back to health on board the ship, but has no recollection of who he is or why he was shot. When he gets to a port, he follows the only clue he has - a Swiss bank account number that was embedded in a device in his hip. Bourne gets to Switzerland and finds that the account number links to a deposit box at the bank that contains various passports, money, and a gun. Before he has time to fully process the ramifications of this discovery, Bourne is hunted down by the police for having (unwittingly) assaulted policemen the night before, an incident that also led him to discover that he had incredible hand to hand combat skills. Seeking refuge in the US Embassy earns him only a minor reprieve, as the embassy staff also try to hunt him down, which leads to an exciting escape and an encounter with a cash strapped woman outside the embassy named Marie (Franka Potente). Bourne pays Marie to drive him to Paris, which is where he believes his home to be based on the information in his 'Jason Bourne' passport.
A parallel storyline follows Bourne's superiors, Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper) and Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), who become aware of his presence but are unable to account for his bizarre actions in Switzerland. Believing him to have gone rogue and working against the agency, they decide to have him eliminated. Meanwhile Bourne begins to realize and accept that he is in fact a well trained assassin who was probably injured during a mission. As he travels with Marie while trying to piece together his identity, the two become the targets of assassins from the agency and local law enforcement. Embroiled in danger at every turn, they forge a strong friendship, and Bourne's focus shifts to keeping the two of them alive through a series of thrilling chases and action set pieces.
That summary was way too long, but necessary to provide some context for the film. The plot isn't complex but it is certainly full of details that, for the most part, hold up to closer scrutiny. I don't think it's the overall story that sets this film apart though, as it offers nothing particularly clever or original. The script though is very good, efficiently dishing out the details of Bourne's past while also keeping things constantly moving. The characters, in particular Bourne and Marie, are well fleshed out and act and behave in a believable manner to the things they get caught up in, and there is a genuine sense of progression and discovery in Bourne's personal journey as he discovers who he is. While not quite as compelling, the scenes devoted to the actions of the agency are provide a necessary broader context for the viewer. Doug Liman does a great job in balancing the action, character, and intrigue elements. There is plenty of suspense throughout and the character moments feel real and contemplative and provide a perfect counterbalance to the frenetic and thrilling action sequences. The only real let down is the relatively weak climax, which has one ludicrous signature moment that rings false.
The things that really elevate the film are the tone, milieu, and performances. There's a great deal of restraint from everyone involved in this film, and its refreshing. It has an almost old fashioned feel to it. There are no flashy effects, no unnecessarily showy camera-work, no phony tech jargon, no outrageously over the top set pieces, and no cartoon gadgets. The world inhabited by these characters feels much like our world, with real people and real technology. Everything takes place in real locations, and nothing is over designed - offices are set up in ordinary looking office buildings with ordinary looking employees, not futuristic tech zones with hundreds of wall mounted LCD panels. There's no posing and nothing happens for the sake of looking cool; everything happens to further the story and the characters. Even the action sequences, while appearing choreographed, are an exercise in economy, with the all the players in the conflict genuinely trying to bring each other down as quickly as possible.
I guess a lot of the credit for that has to go to the writer, director, production designers and the stunt/action choreographers, and perhaps to Ludlum's original novel (which I will be reading shortly, and which I've heard bears little similarity to the film). They seem to have realized that these stories are far more exciting when they stretch suspension of disbelief only a little and only when necessary. I should also mention that while there is restraint, the film doesn't feel 'cheap' by any means, and you certainly get your money's worth on screen.
Which brings me to the performances. Matt Damon, who knew? Well, actually, everyone's known for the last five years or so, but at the time his Bourne was a revelation. It makes perfect sense, in retrospect, to have a nondescript looking guy as a super assassin. Damon looks like he could blend in and disappear at any time, but he is also absolutely convincing in all the other facets of the role, particularly the physical ones. The guy looks like he could take on a bunch of armed guards the way he does - it's the combination of physical ability and the clinical and ruthless efficiency of movement that makes Bourne believable. Also convincing is the way he conveys the incredible intelligence and analytical powers the character possesses, always sizing up a given situation. At times he seems like a machine, but fortunately Damon also reminds you how human the character is. Besides the physical beatings he takes, his emotional quest to discover who he is and the dawning horror of what he can do are evinced throughout the film.
It helps that Damon is given terrific company in the form of Franka Potente, who was so memorable in 'Run Lola Run'. As with Damon, she's atypical in the role of sidekick and love interest. She comes across as intelligent and quirky and also a little lonely, and Bourne's friendship, life threatening as it is, seems strangely like a welcome interruption to her life. She provides Bourne with emotional support and is strong enough as a personality to avoid being just another damsel in distress. The two actors also play off of each other well and have some funny and sweet moments. The rest of the cast are very good, but the focus is always on the two leads with everyone else being a distant third. Chris Cooper has the next biggest role, and he's solid as the man in charge of the super agent project, 'Treadstone'. Julia Stiles, Brian Cox, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje also do good work in their supporting roles. Very memorable is Clive Owen in a minor, near dialogue-free role as a sinister agent who comes after Bourne and Marie.
So yeah, I'm obviously a big fan of this movie, as I am of its sequel (haven't seen Ultimatum yet, can't wait!). It's one of the best action thrillers out there - it's exciting, intelligent, features compelling characters, and is grounded in minimalism - and is destined to be part of one of the best movie trilogies around. Worth watching for all film fans, and especially for those who feel jaded by the too superficial nature of other recent entries in the genre.