20 years ago: The Bourne identity went against the grain

Revisiting Doug Liman The Bourne Identity

What does it mean to go against the grain and make your own mark? 20 years ago this month saw the release of The Bourne Identity. It’s based on a series of best-selling books by author Robert Ludlum, but not to the same level of recognition as Ian Fleming or John Le Carré. Its theatrical release was preceded by a moderate amount of marketing fanfare. The cinematic landscape, whether it was Summer 2002, Hollywood blockbusters in general or spy action thrillers in particular, was about to get a wake-up call from this mid-budget venture. .

In a nutshell, the Doug Limon-directed thriller follows the journey of amnesiac Jason Bourne (if that’s his real name), played by Matt Damon. Found one dark, stormy night near a fishing boat in the Mediterranean, the protagonist has no memory of who he is or why he was adrift at sea. The two bullet holes in his back and a microchip lodged in his hip revealing a Swiss bank account surely mean something. In Zurich, he meets Marie (Franka Potente), desperate for money and having nothing to lose. Together they piece together the mystery of Jason Bourne, his remarkable skills as an assassin, and why the CIA, led by Chris Cooper and Brian Cox, is out to kill him.

Counter programming

The summer of 2002 was overflowing with full-scale Hollywood entertainment at the theater. Who can forget the first weekend in May, the traditional first start of summer according to Tinseltown marketers? by Sam Raimi Spider Man exploded onto screens, in many ways paving the way for where the industry is today when it comes to the superhero craze (2000s x-men does part of the lifting). The Star Wars prequel trilogy continued with attack of the clonesScooby-Doo has been cinematically adapted for the big screen, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise have joined forces to Minority reportand Will Smith returned in Men in Black II.

Image: Universal Studios

Every summer movie season needs a few weekends of downtime. Certainly, 2002 also saw the release of the gangster drama road to perdition. Even so, most viewers knew Tom Hanks could play just about anything and Mendes had already made a name for himself with american beauty. Expectations have been tempered for The Bourne Identity. If it was a movie from the 1980s or 1990s, Universal might have sold it as THE movie to see that year. But the early 2000s saw a changing of the guard when it came to what is considered mandatory summer entertainment.

The Bourne Identity clicks at a steady pace as it weaves together three complex, thematically rich, character-driven storylines. Viewers witness the confusion of the protagonist, the curiosity of the audience’s surrogate, and the CIA desperately trying to clean up a mess they’ve made. Yes, there are action scenes, some quite good and elaborate. Limon’s picture is what some describe as an adult action movie. Between punches, car chases, and shootings, there’s a web of intrigue that has as much to say about human nature as it does about how powerful institutions mess things up in the name of homeland security.

The spy who went out in the cold

While most of the blockbusters released in 2002 were bright and lively, Identify is a dark and cold affair. Watching it the other night reminded us that the only moment in the whole film that depicts a pleasant day is the very last scene where the lovers reunite. The occasional Christmas trees in the background of banks and houses indicate that the story takes place around the holiday season. From the port of Marseille to downtown Zurich, the Parisian urban jungle and the French countryside, IdentifyThe world of is painted with soft colors. Gray and brown dominate, bringing out small details like the red shoulder bag or Bourne’s orange sweatshirt.

Insulated terminal
Image: Universal Studios

The cinematography and color palette give the film an extraordinary sense of isolation. It is one thing to feel alone against the world on a beautiful summer day, the conditions in which most people watched the film in 2002. It is quite another to be threatened and constrained by conditions of snow, rain, overcast and cold weather. Not only are humans looking for the hero, but the climate makes the world so much less appealing. To the credit of director Limon and the editor, such moments are due. A shot of Bourne warming his hands as he waits outside a bank in Zurich, the view of the snow-capped mountain during the drive to Paris, and arguably the film’s most effective shot, a lone Bourne standing outside at night in the snow, staring darkly at his own footprints.

Blunt instrument

Comparisons to summer releases 20 years ago shed some light on the film at the time. The same goes for comparing it with the kind of spy thrillers that Hollywood was mostly funding at the time. With some exceptions (The Panama Tailor), escape spy fans were treated to a crop of flashy, over-the-top extravaganzas in some cases, or moderately grounded stories in which the stakes were skyrocketed. xxx, The world is not enough, die another day, The Avengers (that of Uma Thurman, that of Ralph Fiennes), Mission: Impossible 2and the Jack Ryan series.

Bourne Identify takes another path. In an ironic twist, 4 years later in Casino Royale, M by Judi Dench describes Daniel Craig’s Bond as a blunt instrument. Many have pointed out how Bourne’s early films greatly influenced Craig Bond’s early adventures. Same Casino Royale give in to the glitz and glamor of the 007 lifestyle. It’s not like Bond is playing poker against Le Chiffre in a junkyard. Limon and company strive to give their protagonist a more raw treatment. The fact is that a person wakes up, unaware of who they are, and discovers on their journey that they were actually very, very bad.

Image: Universal Studios

Casting Damon does a lot of the heavy lifting. Not only is he a great performer, but in 2002 his childlike good looks displayed a healthy seriousness about them. His character can’t be that evil, can he?!? Bourne acts as much in good faith as he thinks he can throughout the film, especially towards Marie. The final reveal lands with sublime impact. He was an assassin. A tool and weapon owned by the United States government to sweep people it disliked under the rug. I would be proud

Unforgettable Bourne

The Bourne Identity marched to the beat of his own drum. It distanced itself from summer season movie offerings, played its cards differently than most spy thrillers coming out at the time, and even propelled Matt Damon to higher stardom. Before Identify, few envisioned him as a major action star. Here he was destroying world-class killers. For more, check out a recent episode of Do You Expect Us to Talk? podcast.

As the end credits roll and Bourne regains his memory, audiences realize they’ve seen a movie that’s hard to forget.

-Edgar Chaput

Comments are closed.