February 2021

The Bourne Identity (2002)

DIRECTOR: Doug Liman


Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Gabriel Mann, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje


In some ways, The Bourne Identity (and its sequels) are throwbacks to older, no frills action movies, without computer animation or special effects, just car chases and bone-crunching fight scenes. The plot isn’t dumb, but it’s simple and straightforward enough to do an effective job of providing the skeletal framework while stringing the action sequences together, and in star Matt Damon we have an action hero who’s more everyman than the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When he’s found floating in the ocean, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has a bank code implanted in his hip and two bullets in his back. He can overpower three men and speak multiple languages. Trouble is, that’s all he knows about himself. He doesn’t know who he is, where he lives, how he ended up in the ocean, who shot him, and especially why there are people following him with sinister intentions. We know that they’re agents of Conklin (Chris Cooper), head of a shadowy government agency. Conklin’s motives are a little fuzzy, at least for a while, but he wants ‘Bourne in a body bag by sundown’, and he’s got plenty of trained killers at his disposal, principally The Professor (Clive Owen), a tight-lipped and skilled assassin. Trying to figure out his past identity while on the run across Europe from Conklin’s forces, Bourne ends up by chance in the company of Marie (Franka Potente), who provides his only companionship and possibly a chance for love in an uncertain future.

The Bourne Identity is an action movie, and as such it is overwhelmingly successful. How much of it is faithful to Robert Ludlum’s novel (from all I’ve heard, not much) is irrelevant; the movie stands on its own as two hours of fast-paced, action-packed entertainment. Director Doug Liman keeps the hand-to-hand combat scenes clear and easy to follow, without falling back on the excessive cuts and close-ups of some other action films (this was not always true of the 2004 sequel, The Bourne Supremacy , which Liman did not direct). There’s a car chase through Paris that takes the best advantage of the sporty, maneuverable Mini Cooper this side of The Italian Job. The fight scenes are fierce, gritty, and visceral: we can feel how hard the traded blows are, and hear bones crack. The movie also does an effective job of globe-trotting; we visit Marseilles, Langley, Zurich (Bourne, of course, has a secret Swiss bank account), and Paris, and the varied European locations add a little background color.

With The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon has proven himself a competent action star. Not only is he suitably buff, he has a touch of vulnerability that we don’t get with a Sylvester Stallone or an Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bourne seems human (albeit with deadly fighting skills). Franka Potente, a German actress previously best-known to international audiences for Run Lola Run, makes a solid match for Damon’s Bourne; her character is instantly likable, and their relationship must take the lion’s share of the credit for maintaining some degree of human interest in what is essentially a two-hour chase movie. Chris Cooper is Bourne’s no-nonsense nemesis, backed up by the ever-oily Brian Cox as his increasingly exasperated boss and Clive Owen, who has about three lines and spends most of his limited screentime acting enigmatic and aloof. Julia Stiles and Gabriel Mann have small roles as Conklin’s subordinates, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a deposed African ruler who somehow fits into the puzzle of Bourne’s past.

There’s nothing terribly complex or substantial about the Bourne films. The touches of depth come from Bourne’s struggle to discover who he was- and his later regret when he finds out more about his past than he wanted to know- and his relationship with Marie, and the movie has enough quiet moments to give these two plot elements enough room to raise the movie above just an endless series of fights and chases. Liman does a capable job handling the action sequences, as well as building tension and suspense, especially during a scene in Paris when the first hitman makes his entrance, and as Bourne’s inevitable contest with The Professor and his final climactic face-to-face encounter with Conklin draws near. Jason Bourne might not be the most emotionally expressive individual, but he’s worth rooting for, and several of the action sequences are rousing enough to produce an adrenaline rush. For both of the above, The Bourne Identity achieves its goals and earns a recommendation as a solid action flick and a couple hours of compulsive entertainment.