Post Millennial Malaise 03: The Bourne Identity

In Which, Oh My God, It’s Jason Bourne

The Bourne Identity was never supposed to rock blockbuster filmmaking. In fact while in production it had the stench of disaster. Recent indie darlings, director Doug Liman and star Matt Damon, were out of their depths trying to adapt paperback thrills to the big screen. Liman had little experience with action work, and his insistence for on the ground excitement caused the budget to spiral and the shoot to drag on for months. Damon, while the toast of the 90’s and an Oscar Winner, was coming off a mixed streak of work since the close of the decade. Yes he still had a bit of boyish sheen, but when production started some of his most recent films included the much derided Legend of Bagger Vance and All the Pretty Horses. Famous screenwriter, and movie fixer, Tony Gilroy, had to fax pages to the set as the story was hastily cobbled together.

These production troubles all play into the fact that this movie was never supposed to work for this column. It started shooting in 2000, and was planned to release in the fall of 2001. By  happenstance did this film come out in the summer of 2002, and radically altar the perception of how Hollywood would operate in the post 9/11 world. It’s aesthetics and understanding of action reshaping what the narrative could be, especially in regards to the spy film. Indeed, it is easy to argue that The Bourne Identity is the film that brought “gritty and realistic” back into the blockbuster mainstream. It’s no coincidence that a series like Bond, and even some extent Batman, would chase its tail for the next ten or so years.

What’s interesting about The Bourne Identity is that none of the component parts are especially new or unique. The plot is pulled from a Cold War potboiler, the design harkens back to the world of paranoid thrillers from the 70’s. and there’s still a residual Y2K style on the feature. What makes it pop is how it combined these elements at this exact moment to strike a nerve. In contrast to the bombast and silliness of the late Brosnan era Bonds, Bourne is practically a documentary. A film that takes itself seriously enough that it can be enjoyed beyond it’s most surface level thrills. However what makes this movie sing is that those thrills are there, and are superlative, for as much as we view this franchise as a reaction to the political moment, it also includes many excellent car chases and fist fights. A best of both worlds scenario. 

In The Bourne Identity  we meet Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) as his seemingly lifeless body is pulled from the ocean by a fishing boat. Once planted back on shore in Europe he begins to piece together his previous life as a covert assassin. Rediscovering the tricks of the trade along the way. He recruits help from quasi-vagrant Marie (Franka Potente), and holds off attacks from other operatives led by a mysterious US governmental force headed by the bull headed Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper). All these forces come crashing together as Jason tries to piece together his previous life and how he ended up losing his memory.

A lot of what makes The Bourne Identity potent is the forward facing scale down of the spy story from the epic jaunts of the past twenty or so years. After decades of silly Bond films (though some enjoyable) and espionage boiling down to thumping techno music and hacking montages, there is an undeniable tactility to what Liman brings to this world. Take the infamous throwdown in Bourne’s Paris apartment. As he is ambushed by another mercenary Bourne has to think fast. He doesn’t have any obvious countermeasures on hand, but he does have a pen. So he subdues his foe with an ink font instead of knife, importantly Bourne doesn’t kill his opponent outright, but instead hurts him enough to succeed. This gives us a shot where the attacker pulls the pen out of bleeding hand. It’s a small thing, but it sticks in the mind because the viewer can imagine what that feels like.

This textural pursuit by Liman and Gilroy is the difference between this and the contemporaneous blockbusters. It might have been a headache for production to almost entirely be on location in Europe, but it pays off by having Damon and Potente actually bum around Paris and Zurich, you can feel the cold winter air and the difficulty of navigating streets in the way they act.

Such style is highlighted during much of the other vaunted thrill sequences. There is of course the infamous car chase through the streets of Paris. While the notion of a vehicular chase in a major European metro city is hardly new, Liman keeps things tight and mostly believable here. The chase isn’t super long, only involves a few automobiles, and hits with a blunt force when crashes do occur.  Another example is the final standoff between Bourne and another mysterious assassin played by Clive Owen. Bourne is hiding out in a farmhouse, and instead of a huge shootout between the two there is a game of cat and mouse. Yes a car blows up, but it’s all in the name of distraction and subversion. Owen’s cover is blown because of birds flying from a field, not some fanciful piece of technology.

These strategies from Liman and Gilroy do a lot of work to create an ecology of believability. The tactility and reality of the locations make it seem more possible for what is on screen to be happening, which is important because of many of the ludicrous elements present in the story. Yes despite bringing a sense of realism to the fold, the story is still out of a different time and bathes in a variety of silly tropes. The whole hook based around amnesia is pretty silly in the first place, the impetus for Bourne’s actions being the assassination of a disgraced African dictator is 20 years out of date (these kinds of movies had moved to fully post soviet crooks or Muslism extremists by this point), and there are still elements that feel pulled right out of the 90s (the house music score, and cool montages being the prime examples).

Yet these facets don’t overwhelm the fact that The Bourne Identity feels demonstrably different than its predecessors. The climax takes place in a stairwell, the romance between the leads is fairly restrained, and the glamour of Europe has mostly been sapped away by chilly winter days. There’s an effort here to de-romanticize the elements of spycraft that had become so fanciful during the Cold War and the 90’s and an audience can feel that change.

This change is also an element that lead the Bourne franchise to have a bit of future proofing against the upcoming political climate. Again the exact plot mechanics feel a little bit like they are from the past, however there are details that speak to the actions of the future. The growing American surveillance state where an unaccountable “Them” can keep track of ones every move. Potente’s character may be a a vagabond, but that doesn’t stop people in indiscreet rooms from tracking her down. The contracting out of American foreign policy is another thing that grows in salience as the 00’s continued. That some of nastiest bits of subterfuge and warfare are performed by unknown people working for blandly titled companies. Treadstone feels like something that Dick Cheney would be highly involved in.

These ideas aren’t exactly revolutionary in their own right, again there’s a bit of The Parallax View here mixed with a helping mid-century Le Carré adaptations, but this exact alchemy of star, director, and screenwriter nailed down the idea of what would become the countervailing aesthetic path to something like Spider-Man. Bring it down, make it real, and get people on the street level of the action. In the Bourne franchise it proved to be a bold revitalization, even if it set forward principles that would eventually hinder the American action film.


Odds and Ends

  • Liman is a total mixed bag director. With great entries like this, Swingers, Go, and Edge of Tomorrow, and annoying pieces like  Jumper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the recently released Lockdown.
  • Bourne really stands out in a year that includes Die Another Day, xXx, and Goldmember.
  • No real shakycam here. The legacy of this franchise doesn’t arrive until the second movie.
  • Potente is another real connection to the previous decade of work, as her appearance here feels built totally off of Run, Lola, Run.
  • There are so many pay phones in this movie. Really feels like this is the end of an era where that’s a concerted plot point.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Coming Up: With Hollywood actioners considered, it’s time to move to the other side of the American film spectrum as we take a look at the movement of indie projects in the 00’s. So coming down the pike:

2/4: The Royal Tenenbaums

2/11: Garden State

2/18: I Heart Huckabees

2/25: Southland Tales