Favorite Movies A-Z: The Bourne Identity

Release Date: 2002
Rating: PG-13
Length: 119 minutes
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Franka Potente, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper
Language: English
Country: USA

Movie series (or “universes”, as we’re getting now) seem susceptible to a particular problem or pitfall. Someone comes along and makes a perfectly acceptable movie. Let’s say it’s called, oh, I don’t know… John Matrix. It’s probably even a good movie. It has a decent plot, competent directing, a few stars giving a good performance, and it manages a good box office. Yay! It’s a hit.

Hollywood being Hollywood, however, the next step is to rush another film into production in order to further capitalize on that success. Usually a sequel, but sometimes a prequel it will have a bigger budget to attempt to offset the compressed development time compared to the original. It’ll make a mint and greenlight a third film regardless of actual quality because it’s trading on the quality of the first film. Almost inevitably, numbers 2 and up will not rise to the quality of the first. Yep, it’s time to talk about The Bourne Identity.

The best comparison for Bourne is probably The Matrix. But instead of detailing it further, let’s investigate why Identity works so much better than its sequels. It’s more than just the devolution into cinematic tropes about shadowy government conspiracies and the clear plot-armor in which Jason Bourne is cloaked.

Identity has minor and supporting characters who are interesting, unique, and allowed to remain so. Nikki is no more than the competent manager of the Paris listening post. The Professor is only another program member with his own ideas and opinions, though the film doesn’t feel compelled to spend 20 minutes detailing all of them to us. Even Marie is allowed to remain relatively obscure while the movie keeps a tight focus on Bourne.

The plot is simple and derives its hold on us from the meandering path and danger that attends the characters attempting to figure out what the audience already knows: who Jason Bourne is. Once he works out who he is, will he escape the fate planned for him by his erstwhile handlers and supervisors? The clever mix of spy intrigue, action, and a few special effects make for an engaging film despite a few cracks here and there. (Car chase green screen, fight scene shaky cam along with some overly rapid cuts, and the odd stilted line of dialogue.)

Unfortunately, instead of an excellent one-off action film that elevates itself with the death of a tragic hero to give it an unexpectedly moving twist at the end, we get a far more common film. We have a familiar first-in-an-indefinite-series whose sequels fail to live up to the promise of the original. The story of a man in search of his identity is far more compelling than the identity he eventually finds.

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