RECAP: The Bourne Identity

The Bourne Identity (2002): Doug Liman

Based on the Robert Ludlum series of books, The Bourne Identity came to theaters 22 years its eponymous novel. More importantly, the movie arrived on the heels of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an event that forced any movie dealing with the US government, terrorism, or Americans abroad and in trouble to be viewed through that lens.

The Bourne Identity was filmed before 9/11, and that probably saved it. Director Liman often battled with the studio, which wanted several reshoots and rewrites, and we can only imagine that a huge terrorist attack would have woven into the story had the timing worked. Somehow, the movie came out great.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A man with superior fighting skills awakens in the sea with no memory of who is, and he fights a lot of people until he finds out his identity.

Hero (8/10)

You know his name.

Scratch that, you will know his name, just as soon as he figures it out. Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne, Robert Ludlum’s most cherished amnesiac American spy.

The movie opens with Bourne floating on the Mediterranean Sea. Rescued and raised by French fishermen, Bourne learns French and becomes the world’s greatest fisherman. Twenty years later he is reunited with his wife, who never stopped believing he was alive.

Jason Bourne before he knew who he was
Jason Bourne before he knew who he was

Just kidding. Bourne wakes up after the ship’s captain has pulled two slugs from his back and a laser pointer from his hip. A laser pointer with a Swiss bank account number. Oh, and Bourne has no idea who he is or what he’s doing on a French fishing boat.

For the next two hours Bourne traces the clues of his identity through Zurich, Paris, and the French countryside, learning much more than he wanted to know.

The Bourne Identity expertly lays out Bourne’s steps in learning who he is. After two weeks fishing, doing pull-ups, honing his French, Bourne is no closer to recalling his identity. “I can read, I can write, I can shuffle cards, I can make coffee,” he says, but what’s his damn name?

The French fishers send him ashore in Marseilles, exactly as Edmond Dantes did nearly two centuries before in The Count of Monte Cristo. And much like Dantes, Bourne will seek revenge on those who put him in the cold French Sea.

In Zurich Bourne discovers a safe deposit box loaded with the essentials: hundreds of thousands of dollars, a handgun, contact lenses, multiple passports, etc. These moments are getting in the way of the fighting and chasing endemic to the spy genre, but they are essential for Bourne’s character.

Damon is terrific in these moments of confusion. He enters the Swiss bank and looks around as most common folk would, with a look of “What the hell am I doing here and how soon can I leave?” Greeted by a receptionist, Bourne writes the account number on a slip of paper, rides an elevator up, stops on a floor with guards, and delivers a handprint on a fancy touch screen before being delivered the box.

Bourne looks at the box as if it’s a bomb. He opens it to reveal everyday items one might keep in an overnight bag. When he lifts a tray to reveal the gun, money, passports, his life turns quickly. Suddenly Bourne’s cognizant of the voices outside the curtain. He’s quickly running through the passports, finding his photo in all of them.

Editing and acting make us fear that he’ll be caught any moment, his hand in the cookie jar, and arrested. Bourne stuffs the money and the passports in a red sack, but wisely he leaves the gun in the box.

Marie helping Bourne
Marie helping Bourne

Outside the bank he notes each person wearing a uniform and all sirens sound pegged for him. Again, the editing excels in catching brief glimpses from cops and focusing on siren wails. Bourne walks briskly, cutting hard from any foot patrols he sees.

Bourne gets into a fight in the US embassy and his life unravels from there. Bourne’s fighting skills bubble up as the body count rises. He’s never sure of who he is, but he’s damn sure of his skills.

The fight scenes are memorable in the Bourne series, but it’s Damon’s earlier travails as a man without an identity, on the run from the law, that gives the series the foundation it needed to thrive.

Villain (7/10)

Antagonizing Bourne from an ocean away, Chris Cooper plays CIA bigwig Conklin. From very early in the movie we know about Conklin and that he thought Bourne was dead. In fact, “I liked it better when I thought he was dead,” Conklin says.

Conklin’s days are about to get much worse. He’s got a dangerous asset with questionable motives on the loose in Europe, and he’s got Brian Cox as Abbott breathing down his neck about the botched operation involving a warlord/dictator named Wombosi.

Once Bourne shows himself in Zurich, the chase is on. Conklin pulls out all the stops. He activates all the agents/assets/whatever capable of killing Bourne. “I want Bourne in a bodybag by sundown.” Conklin gets all the grids up. He barks at his team to check schedules. He gets people cross-referencing security photos. That kind of shit. That’s leadership, folks.

Cooper acts as if Conklin is having the worst day of his life, which is probably true. “Is it a game?” he asks rhetorically about Bourne cutting swathes through Europe on his personal Blitzkrieg. When an underling describes Marie, Bourne’s new friend from the embassy, he says, “I don’t like her.”

Conklin 'bout to get got!
Conklin ’bout to get got!

We learn that Conklin is Bourne’s boss, and he sent him to assassinate Wombosi on the latter’s yacht off the coast of France. Bourne botched the job and was shot in the back, presumed dead. But now he’s alive, and Conklin has to clean it up.

Abbott bothers Conklin about Bourne. When will he come in? Are you handling this? What will I tell the Congressional subcommittee about this? Do you think this tie goes with this shirt? Those kinds of questions. Conklin first lies to Abbott that Bourne will “come in” within 24 hours. When that doesn’t happen, Conklin offers this gem about their future career prospects at the Agency: “We don’t take care of this, we don’t make it to the men’s room.”

Conklin succeeds in finding Bourne by tracing Marie. A nomadic person, Marie jumps around Europe every few months, but she cannot escape the claws of the CIA. The teams pins a location to a farmhouse in France where she spent a couple months in the ’90s. That’s great detective work, and it’s correct.

In the end, Conklin does the unprecedented and agrees to meet Bourne in the field. When that goes awry, Conklin meets Bourne in the Treadstone safe house, a meeting that goes much more awry.

Conklin comes to an tragic end in Paris when one of his underlings, not Bourne, murders him at Abbott’s behest. How rude.

I loved Cooper in this role. He always seemed a hair’s breadth from ripping off a string of cuss words not heard this side of a dude ranch. Cooper never seems capable of keeping his eyes much open, giving his complexion that of a constant scowl, perfect for the role of Conklin.

Action/Effects (5/10)

The Bourne Identity‘s best action scene occurs last.

After Bourne pistol whips Conklin, he realizes the guards have heard everything and are coming in soon. Bourne edges toward the flat door. When the guard kicks it in, Bourne kicks back. Hard.

Bourne snatches the first guy’s gun and shoots him in the knee. Outside in the hall, Bourne carries the pilfered gun upside down. He kills the second guard just before the first guy pops back up as if he weren’t shot in the leg. Bourne head butts this man, pistol whips him, and crashes his cue ball dome through the railing.

Five flights down, in the lobby, a third guard sprays machine gun fire at Bourne, who nestles into the corner until the clip empties and the guard runs up the stairs.

Here comes a neat trick. Bourne starts kicking the body of one of the men he’s killed. Kicking it repeatedly into the railing, trying to break through it. When he does, Bourne mounts the body and falls with it.

On the way to the ground floor, Bourne pops a shot into the man climbing the stairs. Bourne hits the floor, but not before his nemesis’s body softens the blow in the stunt of the year.

Bourne movies get bloated with action scenes later, but not the first one. The scenes are few and tight. Watching them, they seem obligatory, necessary to keep fans in seats but not to Bourne’s journey. That’s what the best scenes do.

Sidekicks (7/8)

Bourne has one person in his life who won’t throw him off a boat, shoot at him, or lie to him. Marie (Franka Potente) is a German woman living in Switzerland trying to get a student visa to the United States. Bourne first sees her in the Zurich embassy arguing with an American apparatchik, one of many with whom she has spoken.

Bourne elaborately escapes the embassy and meets her in a snowy alley, asking for a ride. “I’ll give you $10,000 to drive me to Paris,” Bourne says, tossing her the wad of cash. Good negotiating ploy. Strange that he offered dollars and not the euros he certainly had in his bag.

How money was exchanged before Uber and Lyft
How money was exchanged before Uber and Lyft

Marie hears sirens and knows they are for Bourne. She’s no fool. She refuses to drive him. “Can I have my money back?” Bourne asks. Marie accepts the ten grand, plus another ten grand when they get there. She’s no fool.

Driving from Zurich to Paris, Marie rambles on about her life. She’s not usually so chatty, but when she’s nervous she speaks rapidly, and she’s nervous when strange Americans pay her 20 grand for a ride to Paris.

“Listening to you is relaxing,” Bourne says, as Marie describes a surf shack or something. It’s the best pickup line that’s not used as a pickup line. Marie takes to Bourne, his handsome face and amnesia backstory and bullet wounds and haircutting skills.

The real question is, why does Marie stay with Bourne? Outside a Paris train station, Bourne pushes hard for Marie to leave him. Sitting in her car, Bourne explains that he will have to run for a long time, maybe forever, and this is before he’s learned that he’s a tool of the CIA but after he’s killed the first assassin gunning for him.

Marie is in shock. That partly explains it. She’s also a gypsy with no taxes or bills, barely a phone record. She’s accustomed to being on the run. Combined, they might explain it. Maybe. The onscreen struggle is real.

Marie never blossoms into a sidekick role. She helps Bourne, sure, finds a place for him to stay long enough to wear out his welcome. The Bourne Identity avoids a few scenes in which Bourne trains Marie to shoot a gun or drive a car.

Marie rides in her car through Paris. She does nothing at her ex’s farmhouse, leaving Bourne to chase down the Professor. I do not knock Marie. She was foolish to stay with Bourne after what happened in his Paris flat, but she was wise enough to flee after the farmhouse attack.

After further prodding from Bourne, Marie leaves the story after the farmhouse fight. She lives to open a scooter shack in Greece.

Henchmen (2/8)

Conklin is the boss. He orders the assassins out of hiding and toward Bourne. They have code names like Castel and Manheim, guys who have killed so many that job no longer interests them. They look upon a dozen fake passports like we might a colleague’s email.

The only assassin with any lines is Clive Owen as the Professor. He’s the guy to shoot Wombosi dead in the latter’s Paris flat, which was a terrific shot from a hundred yards with a tight, ahem, window, to get the shot right.

Professor moves about Paris to learn Bourne’s location in the country. He sets up his massive sniper rifle on a hill overlooking the farmhouse.

The movie conceals this part from us. We know some guys are coming to kill Bourne and anyone hanging out with him. We don’t know who or when. When Marie’s ex’s children announce their dog is missing and Bourne finds out that he’s never missing, he says, “Get everyone in the basement right now.” The phone lines are cut. Marie curses in German, so you know it’s bad.

Clive Owen's great and all, but how could you be scared of this guy?
Clive Owen’s great and all, but how could you be scared of this guy?

It’s Bourne or Professor. Bourne scrambles through the house and finds shotgun shells and a shotgun. It’s daytime, and he needs cover. Without preamble, Bourne steps outside and blasts the gas tank, sending black smoke billowing up. Somehow Bourne knew the smoke would block line of sight.

Now we get our first look at the Professor. He was right where Bourne though he’d be. Prof disassembles his rifle after firing a couple misses at Bourne streaking through the woods toward him.

Professor runs into a field of wilting plants chest high. Bourne stops short of entering the field. He’s smart. Bourne fires once into the air. A flock of birds scatters, masking Bourne’s sound as he moves around the field. Professor draws a pistols and, for some reason, abandons his position.

Bourne puts two shells into the Professor. Bourne approaches Professor, who seems joyed to die. “Look at what they make you give,” he says.

Owen barely spoke in the movie. He was the first of effete assassins that populate this series. Do they blend in? Sure. Are they scary? Not really.

Stunts (2/6)

Fight scenes are rare in The Bourne Identity. The most important one occurs in Bourne’s Paris flat, or should I say Kane’s Paris flat.

Bourne and Marie enter the building after Bourne fails to reach himself on the intercom. “Guess you’re not at home,” Marie cracks. The landlady recognizes Bourne as Kane and let’s him in.

In the flat Bourne finds a beautiful apartment that can’t belong to a guy on the run like he is. The flat looks as lived in as a model home. The hot water doesn’t work.

So it’s little surprise when Castel, the first Treadstone assassin tasked with killing Bourne arrives. It IS a surprise that he rappels through a wall-length window firing a machine gun.

Bourne swipes at Castel’s leg and Castel chokes Bourne. Some knees are kneed at heads Castel draws out a small knife that can be gripped between one’s fingers. Bourne head butts Castel. The camera does a half-circle as they move into the empty-but-for-the-desk common room.

Gonna leave a mark
Gonna leave a mark

Castel knocks Bourne toward the desk, where the hero picks up the best possible weapon: a ballpoint pen. Bourne puts it to good use quickly, jabbing Castel’s knife arm. They trade more blows, mostly kicks and elbows, before Bourne jabs the pen into Castel’s knife hand and knocks him over the desk.

Castel stands up with a sneer on his face. He makes a show of removing the pen as if such items were commonly removed from his hand. Bourne doesn’t hesitate to break his leg and arm in two swift moves, leaving his would-be assassin supine and asking him, “Who are you?” Castel answers him, in a way, by getting up and running through the window.

Bourne’s full fighting skills are not on display yet. He shows competence, but not dominance or brutality in fighting. Later we’ll just how well Bourne can drive a car and throw a punch, but Identity only gives us small tastes, as if the filmmakers expected the sequels they got.

Great stunt
Great stunt

Or, they didn’t have the budget for big stunts. Climbing down the embassy building, though, that was great.

Climax (3/6)

After killing The Professor, Bourne finally convinces Marie to bail on him. She leaves with her ex and his kids. “You gotta start running,” he says to Run Lola Run.

Bourne dials up the CIA and speaks with Conklin, demanding to see him on Pont Neuf in Paris at 5:30, to take off his jacket and face east. Specific instructions, ones Conklin couldn’t even mess up.

Until he does. Bourne scopes out the bridge from a rooftop. He spots three plainclothes CIA dudes around the bridge when Conklin removes two jackets. Two! That wasn’t part of the plan. Bourne blows the scene and tracks a van that leads him to the Treadstone flat.

Treadstone team tracking Bourne before the Paris showdown.
Treadstone team tracking Bourne before the Paris showdown.

That evening, Conklin and Nicky clean the room, removing equipment and shredding papers. Bourne, outside, uses a street sweeper to set off alarms on a row of cars, distracting guards enough for Bourne to enter the flat and kill the power.

Bourne, gun drawn, gets the jump on Conklin, who was slinking through the house as if he would get the upper hand. They have a chat, not a nice one, as Nicky watches. Bourne finally asks the man who can answer the question, who am I?

“You’re US government property,” Conklin shouts. “A malfunctioning, thirty-million-dollar weapon. A goddamn catastrophe!” Laying it on a little thick, eh Conklin?

Conklin explain the failed Wombosi mission. He says “yacht,” which appears to be the key work to unlock Bourne’s memory. We watch a flashback to three weeks ago of Bourne on Wombosi’s yacht off the French coast.

Bourne moves through the yacht on a stormy night. He walks behind Wombosi, who is sitting on a couch, and points a handgun at the top of his head. Bourne was meant to kill Wombosi and make it look like an underling did it.

Cue music from a child’s crank toy. A child sits on Wombosi’s lap. Two others sleep nearby. Bourne, a weapon as expensive as a fighter jet, didn’t receive the training to murder in front of kids.

Back in the present, Bourne orders Conklin to call off the dogs. If he’s not satisfied, “There is no measure to how fast and how hard I will bring this fight to your doorstep.”

Bourne hears the crackle of Conklin’s radio and pistol whips his boss. The scene described earlier ensues in the stairway before Bourne escapes.

What we need to see is Conklin stumbling through the streets. Manheim, the final Treadstone assassin, waits in a car. We think he’s there to shoot Bourne. He steps out of his car, raises a gun, and kills…Conklin.

Back in Virginia, Abbott confirms that Conklin is dead. His underling leaves the office and shuts off the lights, the computers, all the power. Treadstone is over.

Abbott goes before Congress to testify that Treadstone was a game program. A bust from the start. Can I interest you in Blackbriar?

In Greece, Bourne tracks down Marie to a scooter rental facility. He asks for a bike. She asks for ID.

Jokes (0/4)

Can you believe The Bourne Identity went the entire movie without a single amnesia joke? Neither can I.

There’s little funny about a guy who can’t remember his name, and a bunch of murderous assassins are tracking him. The Bourne Identity came in the early days of the Internet, when the technologies at our disposals seemed magical and not yet burdensome. Those were the days of the gigantic PCs with glass monitors, and a room full of them at the CIA still seemed a wonder. Now I just find it funny.

Setting (3/4)

You can’t beat Paris.

Paris is the best, even in the rain and snow. It’s monuments are too beautiful and iconic to be considered less than great. Any movie filmed there will look great. Thanks to Von Haussmann.

Bourne traffics in several European spots. Zurich is a chief location. The Swiss banking capital is covered in snow in this film, making the city appear more peaceful than it likely is.

Not often you see La Defense in a movie set in Paris.
Not often you see La Defense in a movie set in Paris.

Bourne enters the US embassy in Zurich. The embassy is in Bern; Zurich has a consul. I’ve been to one embassy in my life, and it was not as spacious and grand as the Swiss one that is not in Zurich but in Bern. We can look past this oversight.

Few countrysides evoke fond images like the French one. Marie and Bourne visit a farmhouse outside a central French city. The house’s white walls evoke a home that’s sat on that snowy spot for centuries. Bourne ruins the image when he steps outside and shotguns the gas tank, sending black smoke hundreds of feet high.

Commentary (1/2)

Conklin calls Bourne a “tool” of the US government. The government “owns” him. Whoa. New slavery? I’m sure Conklin feels that way. Bourne is a $30 million weapon gone awry. What is he, an F-35?

The Bourne Identity espouses a government that sends assassins to murder foreign leaders. We know the CIA has tried this in the past. Castro, anyone? Does the Agency still do it? Probably.

What would happen if someone wanted out? Bourne decides, late in the film, that he doesn’t want to remember. He doesn’t care. Can a government weapon disavow that government? The Bourne Identity asks the question that it and subsequent sequels can’t answer.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Conklin refers to Marie as a Gypsy. He also doesn’t like her, partly for her nomadic tendencies that make her more difficult to pin down. Marie moves around a lot, but she never affirms Conklin’s designation. I don’t know how the Roma feels about others calling them Gypsies, but I bet they wouldn’t like Conklin calling them anything.

Others

  • The film goes to great lengths to show Marie in shock after the Paris attack. She can’t speak properly and is prepared to flee because the assassin who pulled a pen from his hand has a sheet of paper with her face on it. Before she can faint Bourne helps her stagger from the flat, but not before she pukes on the lobby floor. Her being in shock might help explain why she decides to stick with Bourne at the train station.

Summary (38/68): 56%

The Bourne Identity asks its protagonist one question at the beginning: what’s your name? It’s a question Bourne answers by the end. In a series of espionage and brainwashing, questions answered lead to questions asked, and Bourne is the kind of guy who will never know all the answers. That’s partly because of the nature of his work and the nature of Hollywood.

Matt Damon’s first turn as Jason Bourne gives us a more confused and scared spy than we see in later films. The action is light and, fortunately, the least shaky of the series. Strong performances by Potente and Cooper help make The Bourne Identity perhaps the best in the series.