The Bourne Identity is very much a film born out of its time despite the fact it’s based off the novel Robert Ludlum wrote two decades earlier. The film birthed out of a political shift where people began to question the ethics of shadier government practices. Furthermore, its hero, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), is perhaps the ultimate conclusion of the sympathetic line of action heroes, a man so conflicted he literally does not know who he is.
A fishing boat off the coast of the Mediterranean picks up a man on the verges of death. Once this man awakens he’s unable to enlighten the crew as to how he ended up with two bullets in his back floating as if dead the midst of a storm. Whatever happened seemed to have induced light amnesia to the point that he can’t even remember his name, nationality or any other facts about himself. What he can remember is a strange set of unique skills. The only thing on his person was the bank number of a Swiss account in Zurich for a safety deposit box, a box filled with some revelations and some questions. His arrival at the bank tips off an American agency that wants him dead and Bourne enlists the help of a local woman named Marie (Franka Potente) to take him across the country.
The Bourne Identity is very much the antithesis to the action film genre. A lot of the film is not about the action but about people talking. Most of the memorable moments of the film are not when Bourne takes out three security guards or slowly scales down the side of a building but when Bourne and Marie have a conversation in the car or at the dinner. The action is only there to inform and shape these characters, spurring them on their way and fleshing them out.
The action in particular is a far cry from the regular action flick. Most of the action is grounded in the real world and generally obey the laws of physics and logical thinking. Take for instance the car chase of the film. Usually the hero lifts some spots car or a new name brand car. In The Bourne Identity the hero is forced to take flight in a dinky European car. Likewise, the fights are more about being swift, brutal and practical than showy and entertaining.
The hero of the picture is also defies conventions. Jason Bourne is not some smart mouthed heroic figure who we watch take out terrorists while resolving his personal problems. If anything, Bourne’s problems are internal and the more he kills and the more he discovers who he was and the more he feels conflicted and unsure. In a lot of ways he reminds me of Rambo from First Blood as he isn’t quite sure how to fit into this world or how to reconcile his strange past.
The amnesia plot device is perhaps the only problem with the film. I don’t mind the fact that it’s been overdone, in fact, I think this film actually brought about the insane overuse in a number of pictures. The problem is we can piece together what he can’t rather quickly and the film is never suspenseful. Once we learn Bourne skills and see his deposit box the pieces fall together but yet the film still drags out the revelation for another hour and a half as if it’s some surprise. It’s surprising for Bourne to be sure, he doesn’t quite have the big picture view that we do, but it makes some of the plotting tedious.
But maybe I shouldn’t complain as this gives the film more time to develop the beautifully understated relationship between Bourne and Marie. I think a lesser film would play up the romance with some flirting and sexual tension but The Bourne Identity restrains itself from such devices. Instead it lets the events unfold, a lot of them with little dialogue, and slowly follow this development of the awkward relationship. Bourne doesn’t follow the typical arc and comes out and says some strange things because he doesn’t understand the social conventions and Marie is never quite sure how to take it. What sells it are the performances by Matt Damon and Franka Potente. Damon has to play a lot of moments that should be corny but he makes them work by playing them straight and sincere instead of unnecessarily nuanced. Potente in turn has to sell her reaction to such oddness and be distressed enough to be plausible but not annoying.
The Bourne Identity is a reaction to a genre that has gotten gradually and gradually less based in any bit of reality. It’s the antidote to such utter nonsense as Mission: Impossible II. It’s a return to the Rambo model where the action is a vehicle to explore a deeply conflicted and sympathetic character. I’d go so far to say that it’s the beginning of the only action series that is anywhere near as compelling and human as the first two Rambo pictures.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing