#3 in my ranking of the Bourne Franchise.
It feels like a lot of movies that come along and start new trends tend to be throwbacks. Action movies by 2002 had become Matrix clones and other high concept over-produced spectacles with little grasp of character, and along comes The Bourne Identity with its 70s paranoid thriller aesthetic combined with early 21st century technology that a few movies had touched on before in the recent years like Spy Games and Enemy of the State. Those might have been mild successes, but The Bourne Identity hit commercially in a way that led to mimicry for more than a decade. It tapped into a zeitgeist.
Directed by Doug Liman who had a couple of indie darling films with energy got his shot at Hollywood with this adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s spy novel which took the basic concept and made his own story out of it. Jason Bourne starts the movie floating in the sea off Marseille without memory, and within minutes I think the movie makes a mistake. We get our moments with Bourne as he struggles to ground himself without knowing who he is, where he came from, or how he can tie knots and speak several languages, but then we very quickly get the answers to all of these questions by looking in on Conklin at CIA headquarters in Langley as he explains the problems with Bourne’s last mission to his boss. Suddenly, the mystery of the movie gets sapped out of the action and we watch as Bourne slowly catches up with the audience. I suppose there’s a balance between trying to build tension by hiding information from the audience they get from the trailers and just giving into that reality, but I prefer it when movies act like their marketing isn’t a factor. I mean, imagine the shock of the scene where Bourne gets attacked in his Paris apartment and the movie had given no indication that Treadstone had sent three assassins after him. It would be the explosion that suddenly opens up the narrative after about thirty minutes of tension building, and then we go to Langley. It weakens the first act is what I’m saying.
So, Jason follows a series of clues that gets him to a safety deposit box in Zurich that tells Langley where he is. He picks up a young German woman, Marie, to drive him to Paris where he thinks his apartment is and to avoid the use of any transportation that might put him in sight of any surveillance. Meanwhile Conklin is using every aspect of his surveillance apparatus to get a track on Bourne. As Bourne figures out more and more of his past in tiny little pieces, Conklin gets closer. It’s when one of his code names, John Michael Kane, appears in the newspaper after a deposed and exiled African warlord, Wombosi, announces his visit to a Paris morgue where the body of his supposed attempted assassin is that Bourne finally makes the connection about who he was in the past. It’s about here where the story feels like it’s fully on the right footing. Jason has caught up with what the audience knows, and he’s making choices about how he wants to form his future knowing that. He takes the reasonably attractive young woman as his way out, and she’s happy to be that for him.
That the CIA won’t just let him go dominates the final act as Jason sends Marie away to let him deal with the problem on his own.
Now, the reason this movie hit wasn’t really because of the narrative, its characters, or its themes, but its action, and that action is quality stuff. It leaned into the shaky cam aesthetic that had been slowly building and made it popular. It’s solid stuff, implying frantic action with close ups while keeping the camera back far enough to keep the action clear in intermittent wide shots. The real highlight though is the car chase through Paris. Jason takes his little red car down sidewalks, stairs, and the wrong way through traffic as he evades the encroaching police. It’s solidly filmed, edited well, and set to a propulsive song by Paul Oakenfold. It’s grounded, exciting filmmaking that feels like a complete throwback to a different time.
I don’t entirely know how to feel about the plot’s final machinations, though. Jason gets himself to a small apartment in Paris where he confronts Conklin with Nicki, the logistics agent in Paris, and it feels really small. There’s fighting as Bourne leaves, but the actual confrontation with the man who’s been pulling the strings feels tiny visually, and that feels like an issue because Conklin and Jason don’t really have any relationship up to this point. So, it’s a narrowing of focus on a relationship that hasn’t really existed up to that point. At the same time, that sort of narrowing feels appropriate in general. His fight with the CIA manifesting as a direct confrontation of words (not physical strength or guns) with the head of Treadstone, the program Jason was a part of. There are parts of this that I both like and feel wary about at the same time. It’s odd for me, but I think that’s just a me thing.
The Bourne Identity is a good little movie that could spawn sequels but feels complete enough on its own. It’s got that right kind of mix in the ending where Jason has completed a journey but enough has been set up within the film that any sequel could take a new direction somehow. We’ll see, I guess.