The Bourne Identity (2002) Director: Doug Liman
“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?”
Based on the late Robert Ludlum’s 1980 novel of the same name, The Bourne Identity represents an explosive renaissance of the gritty, realist, high-espionage film drama that James Bond had so whimsically drifted apart from at the time (cue the scenes of Pierce Brosnan riding a giant CGI melted arctic ice wave spawned by a remote space laser, or Bond driving an invisible car upside-down through a remote frozen castle as featured in 2002’s Die Another Day). Sadly Ludlum died in 2001 but he was nevertheless listed as a producer in the credits for The Bourne Identity. Interestingly enough, this film was in production during the attacks on September 11, 2001 leading to some significant re-writes to the script, particularly at the conclusion. Despite there being a small handful of obvious green screen shots and one rather ridiculous moment of Matt Damon falling several stories down a stairwell to land on a corpse only to trudge away moments later, the realism of The Bourne Identity is a welcome rejuvenation for the spy genre –it is the first part of an all-time classic franchise.
The film opens with a compelling premise: a lone man is found bobbing in the waves of the Mediterranean before being rescued by a passing Italian fishing boat. A caregiver aboard the vessel pulls two bullets out of his back and a laser pointer imbedded from his unconscious body. Who is this strange person? How did he get here? The man, apparently named Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), awakens to find himself struggling with a severe form of amnesia. On the mainland he discovers a personal safe deposit box containing a pile of cash in different currencies and various passports under different names –and a gun. Bourne, who seems to have been some sort of assassin, makes a resurgence which triggers a CIA alert and he is followed by the police until he escapes into the U.S. consulate leading to a dramatic chase scene involving Bourne scaling the embassy. He meets a German immigrant named Marie (Franka Potente) and offers her $10,000 to drive him to Paris. Along the way they fall in love, but when they arrive at Bourne’s Paris flat an assailant is waiting to kill them.
Much of the film concerns Bourne’s incredible level-headedness while under immense pressure, the sheer intensity of his intellect is apparent to everyone but himself. Meanwhile, the CIA sends a trio of headhunters following a botched assassination attempt in which Bourne apparently decided not to kill his target, an exiled African dictator named Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but Wombosi is soon killed by a sniper known as “The Professor” (Clive Owen) in a desperate effort for the CIA to cover its tracks. We soon learn that Bourne was/is a secret agent of a CIA Black Ops program known as “Treadstone” run by a man named Conklin (Chris Cooper) who reports to his superior Abbott (Brian Cox). Bourne traces clues to his identity while masterfully dodging police and CIA assassins, killing “The Professor” in a memorable scene in which Clive Owen dies as a sympathetic foil to Bourne:
“Look at us. Look at what they make you give”
Unlike in other espionage movies, the cold and calculating CIA bureaucrats are shown to be the direct villains in the film. They act independently with minimal oversight and essentially infinite surveillance capabilities –they seem to the audience to be sterile and inhuman. We learn that the reason Bourne botched the initial assassination of Wombosi is because he empathized with the man’s children who were playing aboard Wombasi’s yacht. Suddenly in this moment Bourne decides to answer to his conscience rather than his duty. In The Bourne Identity, the agents are portrayed as empathetic while the American bureaucracy is revealed to be a monstrous, hollow, conniving machine endlessly caught in a cycle of eating its own. In the end, Conklin is assassinated by Abbott as Bourne flees into anonymity. He has been granted the chance to be reborn. Meanwhile at the CIA, Treadstone is decommissioned while a new project called “Blackbriar” is launched, and Bourne reunites with Marie at her small shop on Mykonos.