In the summer of 2002, Good Will Hunting actors and writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon each had an action movie making their way to cinemas. Affleck was assuming the role of Jack Ryan, doing so after three very successful films that had previously starred Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford in the lead role, while Damon was starring in The Bourne Identity.
Robert Ludlum’s novel had been adapted before as a television movie starring Richard Chamberlain, but was now a Universal Pictures release directed by a post-Swingers and Go Doug Liman, a screenplay with Tony Gilroy as one of the credited writers, and a cast that was made up of a Damon, Run Lola Run‘s Franke Potente and reliable players such as Brian Cox and Chris Cooper.
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In retrospect, it makes sense that The Bourne Identity became the hit that it did, especially when it arrived on the DVD shelves where it found an even larger appreciative audience, but back in 2002 it might have been seen as a safer bet to expect The Sum of All Fears, the fourth Jack Ryan film, to be the heavier hitter. After all, Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst had been a central figure in three prior blockbusters and it stood to reason he could be so again.
Yet, it would be fourteen years before another Jack Ryan film made it to the big screen (and after that television would become his home), whereas The Bourne Identity somewhat changed the face of the action genre. Nobody would have expected it when the film was first announced, but the grounded grit of the first film and the franchise that it would launch (with two immediate sequels directed by Paul Greengrass) would almost fundamentally change the visual language of action cinema, making the first film something of an important one for the genre.
On top of a new Jack Ryan film, 2002 also saw the release of the twentieth James Bond film Die Another Day, a celebratory victory lap for the famed series celebrating forty years on the silver screen, and yet when that film gained a follow-up, it would be a reboot that was clearly taking inspiration from Bourne and his world.
Liman’s prior experience in indie cinema with the likes of Swingers and Go meant that there was a different flavour to the action and style on display. On the surface, it looks how one would expect an action film centred on the CIA would; the supporting cast are the type of actors who always have the ability to make a film a classier enterprise, while the younger cast of Damon, Potente, Julia Styles and Clive Owen gives proceedings a youthful vibe that isn’t layered on too thickly. More remarkably, the film and the resulting series would also show a disdain for large elements of American political policy that would make it the perfect fit in a post-9/11 world. The CIA are not the good guys here, their behaviour is abhorrent, messy and ends up leaving a trail of carnage on foreign soil due to them acting like the world’s police force even though they really aren’t. The film ends up being something of a modern variant on conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s such as Three Days of the Condor.
Best of all, while so much action cinema of the time was drenching itself in CGI, there was something resolutely old-school about Liman’s approach. The action is fast, stylishly filmed and accompanied by a pounding music score with considerable drive courtesy of John Powell (whose music is a character in its own right for this series), but it never cheats when it comes to the stunt work and choreography. Unlike many other spy series, technology is frequently eschewed in favour of old school techniques, and Bourne himself has to rely on whatever is at hand.
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It says a lot about how early-to-mid-2000s in feeling and aesthetic the first three Bourne films are, that more often than not the character relies on using Google in internet cafes, tourist book guides to find places, telephone boxes for communication, and whose first choice of weapon during an intense fight scene is a Bic biro.
The ace in the sleeve here is the human component. James Bond is a wonderful series, and it would find traces of humanity in various films dotted throughout its run, not least with Lazenby and Dalton before the Craig-era would go to town with grounded stories with as much emphasis on character and plot. Those factors were a vital part of Bourne right away. Yes, the Parisian car chase is fantastic, the fight scenes swiftly brutal and entertaining, but it’s in the little moments where it finds its power, and would do so over the next two movies marking it as one of the best franchises of the decade. It helps when you have an movie star with a command of character such as Matt Damon in the lead.
The Bourne Identity was released in the UK on 6th September 2002.