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Non-Review Review: The Bourne Identity

It’s strange to look back on The Bourne Identity, knowing that it kick-started one of the most highly-regarded trilogies in cinematic history. I must confess that I was never excessively enamoured with the espionage thriller – I quite enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Though my favourite movie of the “Bourne” trilogy is The Bourne Supremacy, regarded as something of an ugly step-child of the franchise, so what do I know?

Bourne's just hanging out...

Part of the appeal of the Bourne movies is that they successfully Americanise the concept of James Bond. Many American films have been preoccupied with finding a version of the superspy which works on the other side of the Atlantic – and many of them (such as The Saint or Mission: Impossible II) are significantly weaker for making the attempt. What these movies never realised is that the key components of Bond – the protagonist’s dry wit in the face of moral ambiguity, his charm and sophistication, the general sense of irony and the flamboyant and ridiculous gadgets – were elements that the British had a natural flair for, and were frequently lost in translation.

The Bourne movies, however, realise that if you are building an American equivalent to Bond, you need to strip out the quintessential Britishness of the franchise and replace it with an American perspective. The sense of class and the romanticism is the first element lost, replaced by crude American pragmatism. Spying is a dangerous and bloody business, one to be executed with tactical simplicity and straight-forwardness rather than with a wink and a nod. To an American audience, espionage is a very rough activity rather than a gentleman’s game – Bourne is essentially a hyper-competent thug. There’s no sense of style or finesse, but sheer power – you fight dirty if you have to, because this isn’t about stopping your tuxedo from getting creased, it’s about staying alive.

Although he was replaced for the sequels, director Doug Liman handles the action well – although the original film looks almost introspective when compared to the two films which followed. Liman gives us all the moments we expect from a good spy thriller, but with a little extra craft – the movie’s central gunfight as much about psychological conflict as about spraying bullets, and even the mandatory clandestine rendezvous is snazzily executed in the middle of crowded Paris. Sometimes Liman allows the score to overwhelm the action – for example, the use of Oakenfold’s Ready Set Go during a car chase – but this is the exception rather than the rule.

A Prof-essional...

The other side of this coin is that sometimes the movie delivers its moments in a manner just a little too serious. I don’t mean that it should be light-hearted and fun – indeed, one of the best things about Liman’s direction is the palpable sense of paranoia, that anyone from the meter maid to the friendly bank manager could be in on something – but that sometimes the movie plays its more over-the-top moments in a stunningly straight-forward manner. At one stage, for example, the film does the “mystery-man-vanished-behind-a-moving-vehicle” bit – but with a tiny van. You can clearly see Matt Damon stalking it, which must make Bourne look ridiculous to the spectators, rather than suave. Later on, a potential assassin throws himself through a window rather than talk, but it looks like a ridiculous clip from a comedy rather than deadly serious indication of just how deadly this threat is.

However, the movie – and its sequels – are stunningly effective at presenting an intelligence community conspiracy in a manner which reflects the modern world. It isn’t a vast nebulous organisation orchestrating events, but one guy in an office tucked away inside CIA headquarters, probably hidden behind miles of bureaucratic tape. “You asking me a direct question?” he asks his superior at one point, articulating an unspoken understanding between them – this isn’t a policy that has ever been agreed upon or endorsed, just one that happens.

Chris Cooper gives us the man in charge of operations, the kind of character who likely believes he’s fighting the new Cold War and has never been told by his superiors otherwise – his desk is adorned with not one, but two American flags and a picture of President Bush hangs on the wall. His actions aren’t dictated by a sinister or shadow-y conspiracy, they are just allowed to continue because this is a world where “nobody cares”. Sure, his actions may be malicious (and, in the sequels, it’s revealed that he’s pursuing his own ideology – capitalism), but it’s enabled by a general sense of indifference. When his superior, played by Brian Cox, gets involved, it’s to cover his tracks. Sure, he covers some of his tracks with bodies, but the movie implies that he hides most of the illicit activity behind the figures in financial presentations by reference to some pencil-pushing “cost-benefit analysis”. Hell, at one point the agent running the operation suggests that his superior could handle the Bourne situation – “maybe you can talk him to death.” Words can be just as dangerous as bullets.

The results of a snow-down with Bourne...

The tragedy of the man who would become Bourne is effectively portrayed. Matt Damon plays the character as a blank slate, which was probably tougher than it looked, but I must confess that I am not overly impressed. Bourne is presented to the audience as something of a victim in all this. Even if he volunteered for the assignment, rather than being conscripted or drafted, the movie makes it clear that Bourne is the victim of a huge crime. He has been fashioned into a “$30m dollar weapon” at the cost of his humanity. “Look at what they make you give,” a soldier in the same programme observes as he lies dying. It’s a fairly round condemnation of an attempt to dehumanise soldiers to conduct unethical actions.

That said, some of the movie feels more than a bit manipulative. Obviously we are intended to empathise with Bourne because he has lost the memories which perhaps explain how he became an inhuman killing machine in the first place, so rather than following the decisions which led him there, he is portrayed as a completely innocent party (though the later movies do a decent job of adding some shading). However, the most blatant example of the movie clearly demanding the audience sympathise with Bourne is the way that the film portrays the character’s initial reaction to guns.

Why on Earth is Bourne so afraid of guns? Within the first forty minutes, he leaves one in his safety deposit box, dismantles another and bins a third. He’s clearly not concerned about potentially hurting people, as he throws them around like rag dolls during countless other sequences, even after he discovers how deadly he is in physical combat (and – if he was concerned about causing harm, he could have surrendered at various points). He even knocks one guard down a flight of stairs, which could have potentially killed the guy – in fact, I thought Bourne was going back to check on him, but he was stealing a walkie-talkie to further aid his escape. I’m not condemning his actions – he has good reason to fear getting caught – but wondering why the character would rather engage in physical combat when he could also use a gun to incapacitate rather than kill. He clearly has no compunctions about using a knife, so I can only assume the character’s reluctance to use a gun is designed to endear him to us as someone who isn’t a hardened killer – which feels a little false, given how brutal he is otherwise.

The movie makes great use of its European locations, especially Paris. The classic architecture lends the movie a sense of prestige that suits it, and also helps add a sense of timelessness to the tale of a man searching for his identity – besides, Europe is a strange mix of the familiar with the foreign which makes it perfect for espionage thrillers, perhaps stemming from the Cold War.

However, the ending is deeply unsatisfactory, it feels quite anticlamactic. In hindsight, it’s a clear set-up for the sequel (even though the sequel seems to need a rather strange jump-start which I’ll come back to when I review it). Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, I can just say that it doesn’t really feel like anyone – especially Bourne – has accomplished anything by the time they reach the finish line, in a “that’s it?” sort of way. The end result could almost have occurred via conference call, so banal it is – Jason could have simply phoned up the CIA and said “leave me alone or bad stuff will happen.”

Still, it’s a good movie, and a refreshingly kinetic action thriller. I do prefer the sequel, but the original isn’t without charm. I think it’s the fact that it doesn’t feel empty and insubstantial, buried amid a superficial layer of finesse. It’s raw and messy and brutal, which is perhaps more of a reflection on what we expect real world spy games to be like.

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2 Responses

  1. I never got past the first Bourne movie, to be honest. I just never found Jason Bourne an interesting character. He never seemed to have much personality.

  2. I never thought much of the Bourne Identity and Supremacy. It’s only after watching the Bourne Ultimatum that I was like WOW this was great! And yes, I wonder why you like the Bourne Supremacy so much lol

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