“I guess you’re not home”
It’s interesting to go back and watch Doug Liman‘s The Bourne Identity after so many years and sequels because it’s so unlike what Paul Greengrass accomplished during his tenure at the helm. The action scenes seem almost quaint in comparison with quick cuts and loud thuds. The kinetic excitement of extended take sequences is absent, replaced by choreographed images rather than limbs. It just goes to show how different the series’ origins were with espionage and spy thrills trumping the subsequently explosive hand-to-hand combat. This initial film had a singular focus: discovering who Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is and figuring out who he wants to become moving forward. He was CIA property under orders with a one-track mind for covert mayhem. Somehow his humanity refused to be denied.
Liman developed the script with Tony Gilroy in a way that ignored Robert Ludlum’s novel outside of its operator with amnesia premise. He infused aspects of his knowledge and political leanings towards the current government’s infrastructure, his father a former NSA agent under Ronald Reagan’s presidency inspiring the switch. I’ve never read the book to compare, but this dynamic with the agency’s penchant for unsanctioned dark ops and ensuing cover-ups is the film’s greatest strength. Just as Bourne is unaware of his pursuers, his handler (Chris Cooper‘s Conklin) is unsure why he disappeared. Everything hinges on the miscommunication of unknowns. To DC Bourne still being alive despite failing to assassinate his target (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje‘s Wombosi) appears to signal that the assassin turned his gun onto them.
The cat and mouse game that follows occurs at break-neck speed with a ton of suspense. All Bourne knows after being saved by a group of fisherman is that an electronic device was found under his skin with a bank account number. The only lead to even start understanding who or what he is points to a Swiss bank without a clue as far as expectations. What he finds is a safety deposit box containing multiple money rolls in different currencies and a stack of passports with his face and alternate names. But while most was hidden under a false bottom, the one with Jason Bourne sat above. It’s either his true identity or at the very least the one he has been using most recently.
Next up is finding passage to Paris, the address on his documents leading the way to befriend Marie (Franka Potente‘s German transplant having difficulties with a work visa) with a bribe to hitch a ride. This is also the moment when Conklin realizes his asset didn’t die in the Mediterranean Sea as initially assumed. With his boss Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) breathing down his neck for answers and accountability, he has no alternative but to set in motion a series of events that should clean his mistakes. With a few carefully constructed text messages three agents embedded throughout the globe are activated. The Professor (Clive Owen), Castel (Nicky Naudé), and Manheim (Russell Levy) prepare themselves for battle and we anticipate the war. Is Bourne up to the task?
I remember quite vividly Bourne’s encounter with Castel back in 2002 because I had yet to know Damon in the role. He was still just a wiry kid who got a massive break five years after his Oscar-win writing Good Will Hunting. I didn’t know what to expect when Castel came flying through the window. The fisticuffs may not be smoothly shot or allowed the room to breathe as an authentic skirmish, but it’s still absolutely brutal. They are shoving each other into walls, exerting extreme amounts of energy, and utilizing whatever is nearby. Bad guy has a knife? Bourne will use a pen. Far from a graceful dance, this backstreet brawl shows Jason’s unassuming power. It opens his eyes too as confidence replaces insecurity. Fear never existed.
This scene’s crucial to proving Bourne has the skills to survive as well as to expose how Marie’s tough exterior is merely a shield hiding her regular Jane persona. It’s one thing to believe in this stranger and trust him enough to flirt with a hotel manager for information, but watching him almost die while murdering his assailant is another. Her evolution and our gradual familiarity with her are as intriguing as Bourne’s because she isn’t drawn to simply be “the love interest.” When she realizes what he is she panics, looking to leave as quickly as she decided to stay a day previously. It’s not about falling for the rugged hunk—we fall for the sympathetic lost soul who wants nothing more than to be left alone.
Liman isn’t interested in big action showdowns for no reason other than entertainment and it’s been documented that the studio and him clashed as a result. The director saw fights like Bourne versus Castel as necessary to the plot, it’s introduction to the man Conklin knows proving important to our understanding of everyone’s motivations. The iconic car chase through Paris works in much the same way by providing a showcase for Bourne’s muscle memory, his ability to evade and survive is unparalleled. But this film’s smarter than merely repeating the same thing over and over again. We don’t need Bourne to punch his way through The Professor because he’s learned he doesn’t have to by the time of their meeting. He’s Conklin’s best for a reason.
It’s this efficiency to finish off a potential firefight without collateral damage that sets the character and the movie apart from its genre’s blunt force trauma. This is a thinking man’s actioner with the usual amount of excitement—it just arrives from another source. There’s a lot of deflection in play, our assumptions of who is after whom constantly subverted and detoured along the way. The whole experience seems clearly defined as Conklin versus Bourne because we’re quick to forget the former has plenty more to neutralize and rectify on his end than one isolated agent. While Jason seeks to jog his memory and tell the forces after him to let him go his separate way, the CIA is fighting its own internal war as well.
So even though it looks familiar, The Bourne Identity always has something new up its sleeve to surprise. It shows us a brutal death match inside an apartment to earn our interest and excite us for what’s to come with two more pieces on the board perfectly positioned to deliver the same intensity yet fearlessly refuses to supply it. Instead we meet integral characters like Cox’s Abbott, Julia Stiles‘ Nicolette, and Gabriel Mann‘s Zorn to set up what’s coming in the future. Right now they’re acting out of fear and Bourne’s the first to tell them it’s unnecessary as long as they leave him alone. The film isn’t about finding a winner as much as it is finding peace. Death will come if you invite it, so don’t.