Spoiler Warning: This 20-year-anniversary retrospective about The Bourne Identity contains spoilers about—you guessed it, The Bourne Identity.
Much like errant boxes of TNT and surprise quicksand pits, narratively convenient amnesia is something I expected would be a more significant presence in my life by now. Its near ubiquity as a storytelling trope, in everything from Christopher Nolan films, to Wolverine comics, to wildly problematic rom-coms, convinced me from a young age that I was just one tumble down a less-than-neck-breaking-sized flight of stairs from reawakening my latent Jedi powers or long-dormant spycraft.
To date, no such luck, but my love for the trope has continued nonetheless.
“Amnesia” by The Pousette Dart Band, a song about getting hit on the head in a barfight and losing your memory, which I heard over 300 times before I turned nine. (Image via Amazon)
20 years since its initial release, The Bourne Identity remains the apex of amnesiac cinema. From its impossibly capable yet instantly relatable everyman assassin protagonist, to its brutal revolutionization of on-screen blockbuster combat, the first installment of the Bourne I-guess-technically-a-pentalogy redefined the contemporary spy thriller and the career of its star. And while its successors may have improved on the form, The Bourne Identity remains a taut, modern action masterpiece even as it approaches the legal drinking age.
Like fellow fictional spymasters Jack Ryan and George Smiley and James Bond before him, Jason Bourne’s on-screen presence evolved out of a renowned literary presence. Where his cloak and dagger compatriots were mostly established as charisma engines for ostensible mission-of-the-week style franchise storytelling, however, the Robert Ludlum-penned Bourne was a self-contained elevator pitch, with a character biography essentially demanding a multi-film narrative arc: a brooding John Doe sets out to discover his identity, realizes he’s at the center of a vast conspiracy of super-agent assassins, one which he now needs to disassemble in order to reclaim his life, all while surprising himself with an endless array of cop-disarming, tail-shaking, bone-shattering muscle memory maneuvers.
It reads like a storyline too airtight to fumble, but it would be superfluous without a leading actor who could deliver on the promise of its protagonist. And even after twenty years, Matt Damon still manages to surprise with his muscular-yet-vulnerable performance.
From the moment he unconsciously deflects the nightstick of an overly-aggressive German police officer, hastily dispatching him and his partner with habitual ease and then staring in confusion at the destruction he so easily wrought, the audience is immediately convinced by both his prowess and the utter shock with which it comes to him.
It’s worth considering where Damon was in his career in 2002––already an Oscar winner, just behind Leo on the shortlist of thirty-something-year-old actors you’d want leading your movie. We knew he could deliver on “smartest guy in the room,” dating back to his Good Will Hunting days.
We’d watched him wrestle with his own darkness in The Talented Mr. Ripley. We had seen him in over his head in Saving Private Ryan. We knew he could be the most handsome person without scorching his co-stars off the screen.
The Bourne Identity synthesized those strengths into a single role while adding this new dimension of “believable blockbuster action star” into the mix. With the assistance of our dear friend Convenient Amnesia™ Damon gets the chance to be constantly befuddled by his own brilliance, supremely confident, and tormented by the reasons why.
It’s a dream role as action parts go, one that demands a level of dramatic intention amidst the barrage of haymakers and shootouts. Damon’s face oscillates from blankly reactive to confused by his circumstances to horrified by his actions at a moment’s notice, truly embodying the contrast between what his body and his mind know in the wake of his memory loss.
That dichotomy is the engine that keeps The Bourne Identity driving in the midst of its at times blurry, overly-convoluted spycraft backdrop. I’ve seen Bourne upwards of fifteen times and still couldn’t tell you entirely why it’s so essential for Chris Cooper to assassinate Eko from Lost, how Julia Stiles goes about tracking anyone, or what Logan Roy is doing running a shadow arm of the CIA.
None of this detracts from my enjoyment of the film, because every time I find myself getting caught on plot mechanics, Damon incapacitates a guy with a pen while looking completely bewildered, compulsively slips into a different language while talking himself out of a predicament, or says things like “the tires felt a little splashy” before starting a Parisian car chase, and I’m sucked right back in.
None of that works without an actor who can convince you that he is every bit as good as he appears, and every bit as surprised about it as you are.
Though Damon is the film’s gravitational anchor, we would not be discussing The Bourne Identity’s 20-year anniversary without the who’s-who of character actors orbiting around him. Franka Potente (a Mount Rushmore “should have had a bigger career” actor) is the perfect foil to Damon, chaotic in all the ways he is overly controlled, able to render a believable amount of “WTF” energy without overplaying her hand. Her chemistry with Damon, especially during their haircut scene, remains a high watermark for the latter in his notably non-romantic career.
Chris Cooper and Brian Cox nearly light the screen on fire as two different archetypes of American exceptionalism, the former bulldozing his way towards a mission objective with no regard for the rubble left behind, the latter willing to destroy any and everything just to cover his own role in the game. Clive Owen’s sub-3 minutes of screen time makes you understand why Hollywood spent the next ten years trying to make Clive Owen a leading man before lending him out to do BMW commercials.
The other side of the camera is similarly loaded. Tony Gilroy is one of the steadiest hands in the screenwriting game (Michael Clayton is a top-five dead-or-alive stone-cold masterpiece), and expertly grounds Identity and the following three Bourne films in a vernacular-heavy world of constant doublespeak and sudden but subtle tonal shifts.
Director Doug Liman has a fairly hit-and-miss filmography, but his peaks (Edge Of Tomorrow, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Swingers) showcase a prowess of just-left-of-popcorn-centrist filmmaking that we desperately need more of today.
One might worry that by now, Bourne’s cutting edge would have dulled against the weight of early aughts fixation with drum and bass and badly animated zoom and enhanced montages. But even as the franchise itself wanned, the legacy of Bourne looms large over the past twenty years of action filmmaking.
In particular, its brutalistic hand-to-hand combat that first floored us in 2002 became synonymous with the aughts/2010s spy and assassin cinema, infiltrating Mission Impossible, defining the aesthetic of the Daniel Craig Bond era, and being borderline parodied in John Wick.
In today’s era of IP addiction, it’s hard to imagine we’ve seen the last of Jason Bourne. Recent installments make that a complicated prospect (The Bourne Legacy was an underrated gem, but doomed as all Renner backdoor pilots seem to be; Jason Bourne was actively bad). Even so, I’m sure the moment they announce the sixth film in the series, I’ll start counting down the days until tickets go on sale. That’s, of course, assuming the amnesia doesn’t finally come knocking before then.