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Article – The Bourne Identity: The Action Movie Which Revived A Tired Genre


Posted June 25, 2017 by

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The Action Movie Which Revived A Tired Genre

This reworking of a 23-year-old spy novel by the late Robert Ludlum became a huge success, and forced the tired Bond franchise to sit up, take notice and revamp its own style.

At one time Ludlum was the world’s most successful living author, selling over 300 million books in 33 languages. His novels dealt with complex political conspiracy theories which spanned the globe. These books are the source material upon which all the Bourne movies are based.

Bourne Again

While the films may not follow the stories exactly, the core emotional journey of the eponymous character is entirely Ludlum’s concept. It was a premise which instigated a form of action movie that changed the genre.

Jason Bourne is a man who has been left for dead. Hauled out of the Mediterranean by some fishermen. He has two bullets in his back, but also a capsule encoded with a Swiss bank account number. Since he has no memory of who he is, where he lives or what he does, he heads for Zurich.

On his journey the amnesiac finds himself cornered in violent encounters without knowing why, but he soon discovers that he has the highly trained reflexes and skills of an assassin.

This initial premise allows for an emotional basis from which to work. Without a powerful emotional journey, action movies usually boil down to repetitive scenes of killers attempting to kill each other, a formula which soon becomes dull. If we are not provided with an intriguing story and characters that we find interesting, we have nothing to engage with.

In the safety deposit box in Zurich the amnesiac finds a gun, stacks of currency and multiple passports under different names, including an American one identifying him as Jason Bourne. It appears he has multiple identities but he is no closer to finding out who he really is.

Bourne Identity

He does not immediately grasp that he is probably in the business of espionage. He heads for the American consulate, but is soon set upon by shadowy security men. He escapes by hiring a ride to Paris from an attractive German tourist, Marie (Franka Potente) for $10,000.

Bourne doesn’t know why so many people are tracking him, but the audience is clued in. Back in Langley HQ, CIA officer Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper) head of a top-secret operation, is furious because Bourne has botched a hit on a former African leader who is threatening to blackmail the agency.

Now that his agent has resurfaced, Conklin gives out the order: “I want Bourne in a body-bag by sundown.” As an account of CIA ruthlessness. the film aims for the cold-bloodedly realistic rather than the conventionally cynical.

Bourne and Marie find themselves the objects of a manhunt coordinating the resources of the CIA and the French police. Although it would seem prudent for Marie to escape harm by parting company with Bourne in Paris, she becomes convinced of the authenticity of his amnesia and chooses to help him. Her European canniness proves to be both resourceful and useful. As trust develops between them she feels emboldened to initiate a sexual element to their relationship.

What could easily have been a highly implausible romance is given an amount of credibility by maintaining it as a secondary thread and also by casting the unconventional, earthy and natural German actress Potente in the role.

Jason Bourne

As details of his past come to light, Bourne realises that he was not a nice person, and that Marie is ill-advised to maintain a relationship with him. Each new revelation he discovers carries an emotional shock and requires a degree of adjustment for him, and for Marie.

The format provides opportunities for emotional development augmented by the excitement of thrilling action set pieces, close calls and narrow escapes. The spectacle of a rogue CIA assassin being hunted by his own bureau creates an ambivalent emotional dynamic: On the one hand, the viewer automatically sympathizes with the protagonist in a drama pitting him against a sinister opponent – on the other hand, it is underlined that Bourne was himself once ‘one of them’ and a killer.

As the pressure mounts on Conklin to deal with his renegade operative, he sends another hitman (Clive Owen) after Bourne, resulting in a tense sequence in which the two equally trained and ruthless men, who ostensibly work for the same team, stalk each other through woods and fields.

When that attempt fails, Conklin himself pursues Bourne to Paris, and the frantic but bitter climax is entirely in keeping, tonally and dramatically, with the rest of the movie.

Working from a tight script by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, director Doug Liman here extended the fast-paced style he developed in ‘Go’, fulfilling action-genre expectations while managing to avoid imposing hackneyed conventions upon his audience, aided by agile camerawork by Oliver Wood (Liman did much of the operating himself).

The movie was filmed in the real wintry locations of Paris, Prague and coastal Italy, which proved invaluable in bringing the story and the intense chase sequences to gritty life. The acting is also of a higher calibre than usual for this kind of genre piece.

The Action Movie Which Revived A Tired Genre

Matt Damon took over the role when Brad Pitt dropped out and proved he could shed his erstwhile all-American-boy wholesomeness to play the complex role of a prickly assassin struggling with conscience and emotional vulnerability. Damon also managed to be convincing in the scenes in which he was required to be fluent in other languages.

Chris Cooper was well suited to the role as the pitiless CIA boss bedevilled by a crisis, Brian Cox supplied gravitas as his concerned superior. Julia Stiles in a minor role as Conklin’s point person in Paris, alone in a ‘safe house’, left us intrigued as to how this smart, Ivy-League-educated woman found her way into such a risky profession, paving the way for her appearance in the subsequent movies.

Was the first the best?

Although it’s original impact may have been devalued by the Greengrass directed sequels, which degenerated into more conventional action films, it could be argued that ‘The Bourne Identity’ succeeded in its aim to remould the espionage genre for a new generation. It married the realism of 1970s movies with high-octane action sequences audiences had come to expect.

Bourne’s success forced the stale James Bond franchise to rethink its formula and go towards a more nuanced Bond character and more realistic storylines. The Bourne series may be seen as one of the more satisfying action movies that changed the genre.


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Written by:

Ren Zelen
Lethal Lexicon
Freelance Contributor

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One Comment


    That’s the best review of a film or films I’ve ever read. Consider it shared to my cineaste friends.

    Re: Which film in the original Bourne trilogy is the best? I don’t separate them. They’re all re-watchable.

    If I had to pick a favourite scene? “You look tired, Pam.”

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