Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Bourne Identity (Universal, Kennedy-Marshall, Hypnotic, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I went into the DVD backlog and broke open my boxed set of the first three movies in the Jason Bourne cycle starring Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity, based very loosely on the book by Robert Ludlum. According to Ludlum’s Wikipedia page, “Ludlum’s novels typically feature one heroic man, or a small group of crusading individuals, in a struggle against powerful adversaries whose intentions and motivations are evil and who are capable of using political and economic mechanisms in frightening ways. The world in his writings is one where global corporations, shadowy military forces and government organizations all conspire to preserve (if it is good) or undermine (if it is evil) the status quo.” Virtually all his titles are three words, the first being “The,” the second a proper noun and the third an abstract noun: The Ostermann Weekend, The Parsifal Mosaic, The Rhinemann Exchange, The Chancellor Manuscript, The Prometheus Deception — and Ludlum’s three Bourne books were The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990). Since Ludlum’s death in 2001 additional books featuring his characters have come out as what Wikipedia politely describes as “written under the Ludlum brand,” and his publishers, executors or whoever have picked an author named Eric Van Lustbader (whose name sounds like one Ludlum would have made up for one of his characters) to continue writing additional Jason Bourne books. The Ludlum bibliography on Wikipedia also lists three “co-authored” books, The Hades Factor (2000) and The Paris Option (2002) with Gayle Linde and The Cassandra Compact (2001) with Philip Shelby, all in his “Covert-One” series.

The Bourne Identity was first filmed in 1988 as a two-part TV miniseries featuring Richard Chamberlain as Bourne, a show Charles and I got on DVD and watched some time ago — my notes on it describe a plot line considerably closer to Ludlum’s novel (which I haven’t read but various contributors on described in terms of the differences between the 1988 and 2002 films) than the version we watched last night, first of a series of Ludlum movies starring Matt Damon as Bourne. The box contains the three films at least ostensibly based on the novels actually written by Ludlum (as opposed to the 11 listed on Wikipedia as written by Van Lustbader after Ludlum’s death): The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Since then there have been at least two more Bourne movies, one continuing the casting of Matt Damon in the lead and one replacing him with Jeremy Renner. The 2002 version of The Bourne Identity was the brainchild of director Doug Liman, who sought out Ludlum to get the rights (curiously Ludlum is given an executive producer credit and also an “In Memoriam” acknowledgment!) and then went for backing to Universal, who according to the “trivia” section on the fought Liman through much of the film, asking for repeated rewrites and at one point threatening to delete one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, towards the end of the story, in which the fleeing Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and his companion Marie (Franka Potente, a brilliant actress who turns in an indelible performance and makes her character far more interesting and complex than the usual dumb damsel-in-distress — indeed, she totally out-acts Damon!) seek out her former boyfriend Eamon (Tim Dutton) at a farmhouse in southern France. Eamon lives there with two kids, whom he’s apparently raising as a single parent, and he’s living a totally normal life when his old friend suddenly shows up with a strange man whose mere presence puts everyone in mortal danger, and Liman effectively builds up the suspense as to whether Eamon can get his children into his basement in time to avoid them and him becoming collateral damage from whatever Bourne was doing and the enemies he’d made doing it. For future films in the series, Universal and its co-production companies, Kennedy-Marshall and Hypnotic, went to a more compliant director, Paul Greengrass, instead of Liman.

The basic premise of The Bourne Identity, according to the “Trivia” page on the 2002 film, was that a man would lose consciousness and then suddenly regain it, but with no clue as to who he was, what he did or how he had got to where he was when he came to. It came from a real-life case Ludlum discovered from 1887, when a minister named Ansel Bourne from Rhode Island forgot who he was, moved to Pennsylvania, lived there under the name Brown, and opened a store. Three months later, he snapped back to awareness of his Bourne identity and forgot the entire time he’d lived as Brown — and of course had no idea how he’d ended up in Pennsylvania. From that Ludlum constructed a story of a hired killer for an intelligence agency who comes to when he’s rescued at sea and is carrying a microfilm which contains the number to a secret Swiss bank account. Once he’s well enough to travel to Zurich (the script by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron for the 2002 version omits the character of the drunken ex-surgeon who slowly nurses him back to health, included in the 1988 TV-movie and played therein by Denholm Elliott) he is able to open the safe-deposit box and finds a U.S. passport therein in the name of Jason Bourne — and several passports from other countries, all showing his photo but different names. One of them is Jon Michael Kane (“as in Orson Welles, not the Bible,” I was tempted to joke, though apparently the name was “Cain” in Ludlum’s book), along with quite a few bundles of currency from various countries and an automatic pistol, which for some reason he leaves behind though he takes the passports and the cash. Bourne goes to the U.S. Embassy in Zurich but is ambushed there by people he doesn’t recognize; he flees (his flight involves a 30-foot drop off the side of a building and, according to, even though he had two stunt doubles on the project Matt Damon did this stunt himself) and offers a young woman named Marie (Franka Potente), a so-called “gypsy” who’s lived in various European cities and come and gone without any discernible pattern, $20,000 in U.S. dollars to drive him to Paris. She hesitates a bit at first but eventually accepts, and since her car is a British Mini-Cooper subcompact, when they finally get to Paris they’re able to escape police cars much faster than theirs because they have such a tight turning circle. (There’s also a nice scene that reminded me of the 1965 comedy The Great Race, in which they drive down an outside staircase.)

From then on the film is basically a series of action scenes intercut with the people who are trying to find and kill Bourne, who are members of a rogue CIA operation called Treadstone (inspired, according to, by the real-life operation “The Enterprise” that organized the Iran-Contra affair) who sent Bourne to assassinate a former African dictator named Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who was threatening to write a tell-all book about how the CIA kept him in power, which would have “outed” some of the agency’s undercover agents. Bourne, we find out towards the end of the movie, worked his way onto the crew of Wombosi’s yacht and stalked him but drew back from killing him because his kids were with him at the time, so Wombosi plugged him twice in the back and he fell into the water, where he was rescued by a fishing boat and brought to safety. The 2002 Bourne Identity is actually a pretty good movie — not a world-beater, and somewhat handicapped by Ludlum’s and the screenwriters’ attempt to make neither a James Bond secret-agent superhero story or a tougher, grittier John Le Carré-style tale, but something in between, but blessed with finely honed acting (especially by Potente and Clive Owen as the mysterious “Professor,” who takes Wombosi out and is about to do the same to Bourne when Bourne tricks him into blowing his sniper’s cover, overpowers and kills him) and excellent suspense direction by Liman. Much of the film is wordless, and the music is kept to a minimum, indicative of a director who has enough confidence in his images to tell his story in strictly visual terms. One humorous way in which a movie just 14 years of old manages to seem out of date is the high technology it depicts; the computers in Treadstone’s office all have cathode-ray monitors and the cell phones are all of the clamshell design. I could have wished for an edgier actor as Bourne (like Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage) but Damon looks fine and handles the action scenes quite well. I was amused at the sex scene between Bourne and Marie that seems to come out of the blue, and which she is the sexual aggressor; I joked that she’d be saying, “Why shouldn’t I have sex with you? You’re James Bond … well, at least you have the same initials.”