I recently watched The Bourne Identity again. At this point, The Bourne Identity is a modern day action classic. It’s spawned three sequels so far, the latest of which is coming out this summer. It’s become the action franchise that up and coming action movies like to compare themselves to.
Of course no one knew that was going to happen in 2002 when The Bourne Identity was made. Director Doug Liman had only ever done indie movies like Go and Swingers. He’d never worked with this kind of movie or this kind of budget. In the DVD commentary he talks about casting parts by saying things like “How about we get someone like Chris Cooper?” His casting director would respond with, “Well, let’s ask Chris Cooper.” It was entirely foreign to him that he could get or afford A-list talent.
Matt Damon was less of an unknown but no less unfamiliar with being the lead in an action movie. Like Liman, much of Damon’s career had been independent movies. He’d done some big name stuff after he put himself on the map with Good Will Hunting. He was even in Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan. But this was something different.
One of the things that sets The Bourne Identity apart from other action movies is that the plot focuses on the character of Jason Bourne. Many if not most action movies consist of ‘Here are one set of guys, they want Thing A. Here’s another set of guys, they want to stop them from getting Thing A. Commence fighting for one and a half hours.’ With Bourne, you have a character who starts the movie literally not knowing who he is. As he discovers who he is, the audience discovers along with him.
The people who are after him aren’t so much bad guys as they are controllers who have lost control. It’s Apollo 13 where the spaceship is a highly trained covert operative. And it’s because of this that having people with a background in independent movies works. When you’re working in independent film, you don’t have money for a lot of big special effects. All you have that can save you is solid acting, solid production, and solid screenwriting. In other words, you have to focus on character.
While the action sequences in The Bourne Identity are top notch, the thing that makes it work is that we get to know the characters. Franka Potente’s character of Marie could easily been a one dimensional love interest. Instead, we get to know who she is and we get to care about her. When we meet a guy from her past named Eamon, we can tell from how he interacts with her that she’s always finding her way into trouble and at the same time, he can’t resist helping her.
None of this would work without Tony Gilroy’s top notch screenplay. Making a thinking man’s action movie isn’t easy and yet, Gilroy’s work is so smooth it’s almost invisible.
I’ve probably watched The Bourne Identity a dozen times and I’ll likely watch it a dozen times more. Its status as a modern classic is justified.
– Jack Cameron