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2002 rewatch: How The Bourne Identity reinvented action for the new millennium

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Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. This week: EW critics Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich look back at The Bourne Identity. Last week, the steel-magnolia shenanigans of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Next week: Tom Cruise gets an eye transplant.

DARREN: The pen, Leah, the pen! In 2002, as in 2022, the Hollywood blockbuster trend was toward big-and-bigger digital fantasy. Movie spies were now uber-spies, performing Olympian feats of action. Ethan Hunt had just jumped off a helicopter down through a skyscraper. James Bond was about to drive an invisible car through a melting ice palace. Jack Ryan literally just saw Baltimore nuked off the map. But here was Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) wearing a chunky orange sweater, on the run in a brokedown 1989 Mini Mayfair alongside the former proprietor of a "really cool surf shop outside Biarritz."

THE BOURNE IDENTITY
THE BOURNE IDENTITY

Everett Collection

Bourne's a mystery to himself, fished out of the Mediterranean with a couple bullets in his back and deep amnesia. He doesn't remember a thing about his life, but his muscle memory is strong. He knows how to fight, how to disappear, how to free-climb down the side of an embassy. And when an assassin with a machine gun crashes into his apartment, a weaponless Bourne knows how to subdue the guy with a ballpoint pen.

I'm going to throw out the possibly baseless assertion that Bourne Identity is the first 2002 movie we've rewatched that actually feels like 2002. Like a lot of other big films from that summer, Bourne was an adaptation — based on a 1980 Robert Ludlum novel, previously adapted into a 1988 TV movie. But screenwriters Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron modernized the story, and Doug Liman gave this material a whole new, well, identity. Liman was coming off Go, an outrageous masterpiece of rave-chic tomfoolery, and he had the clarity to bring the espionage genre down to earth, with a run-and-gun style that gave the whole action genre a bad case of the shakes.

The plot, on a macro level, is simple: America's intelligence apparatus is devouring itself. Frequent cuts back to D.C. let Chris Cooper and Brian Cox give apex frowns as CIA skullduggers hiding black-ops nastiness from an oversight committee. But Bourne lives in the interaction between Damon and Franka Potente, whose Marie remains my favorite-ever "normal person" in a spy movie. She's a relatable and specifically Gen X-flavored mess, and Potente was (arguably) cooler than Damon circa then for anyone who saw her tear through Run Lola Run. Marie's trying to figure Bourne out. Bourne's trying to figure Bourne out. They're both trying to figure out what shadowy forces are turning Europe against them.

I used to think I preferred Paul Greengrass-directed Bourne sequels, but I have to say that this rewatch reminded me just how singular Identity is. It has all the kinetic brutality and political cynicism of the sequels, but with a romantic hop-on-the-Eurail travelogue quality — plus Clive Owen! What are your memories of watching Bourne in 2002, Leah, and how did it hold up this go-round?

LEAH: Honestly Darren, this rewatch made me feel like Andrew Lincoln in Love Actuallycreeping on his best friend's new bride: "To me, you are perfect." Yes, it's popcorn. But God I love this movie, and I don't know that I would change a single thing about it in 2022. I am Bourne again! Don't worry, though; I will spare you the cue cards I made for Potente.

I agree with you that this is one of the first films we've picked for our summer series that actually feels like 2002, and not some Clintonian hangover of the mid- to late-'90s. Still, I think as a spy movie, it weirdly really benefits from that exact millennial moment in technology: There are cell phones, but not smart phones; chips embedded with Swiss bank accounts beneath Bourne's skin, but only the remedial chk-chk-chk of a fax machine to send his mug shot around the globe. So the narrative and the mystery get to breathe, without all the hectic dazzle of Mission: Impossible face swaps or Bond-guy gadgetry.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY
THE BOURNE IDENTITY

Everett Collection

It's funny too what you say about the Eurail-travelogue quality: As lean and mean and extremely focused on storyline as Identity is, Liman's direction also somehow manages to feel distinctly European in all its incremental character moments. (There's a little Before Sunrise embedded in Jason and Marie's slow-dance romance, and a whole tiny tragedy in Clive Owen's C-plot; who's that kid he's teaching piano to? And how does he manage to convey so much existential despair along with crucial exposition in his French-meadow death scene?) When Jason goes hand-to-hand with the maniacal bleached-blond assassin in his Paris apartment and the man suddenly jumps out the window like he's starring in an '80s PSA for angel dust, Marie has the only logical reaction: "He went out the window. Why would someone do that?" Then she barfs.

How can you not celebrate an action thriller that shows protagonists acting like actual, recognizable humans in the face of random self-defenestration? And I haven't even gotten yet to some of the supporting players: Brian Cox, perfectly furious and blow-dried; future Oscar winner Chris Cooper, the company man with no moral compass beyond damage control; a young Josh Hamilton and Walton Goggins (hi, Uncle Baby Billy!) barking out Bourne sightings and location codes from their desk-duty chairs.

Still, this is Damon's movie, and I think he's fantastic. There are so many small moments: that little scrunch of surprise his face makes when he's confronted by the Swiss police and realizes he speaks fluent German; the way he delivers the line "I don't want to know who I am anymore." His Jason is literally a blank slate, but he's not, unlike his best friend's lost frat-boy Jack Ryan, a bland cipher in any sense. But Darren, what's your take on Damon's performance, beyond his indisputable skills with a ballpoint Bic?

DARREN: You're nailing the peculiar magic of Bourne's lead identity, Leah. The movie surrounds the title character with so many vivid personalities, and demands Damon function as a human sponge. The wrong performance would've made Bourne a blank — and this was an unsettled period in Damon's filmography. Was he a crass Kevin Smith snarkbot, a blandsome Bagger Vance prestige chaser, or an indie weirdo dedicated to Gerry-esque oddity? The amazing thing is that Jason Bourne gets to be all of the above, and more. The early action scenes play off Damon's diffident wrestling-team dedication — he seems like a very nice young man who can't believe how violent he can be. But there's also a genuine humor in his confusion, and a feeling of dark depths. The pivot of the movie is from investigation to obfuscation: Bourne wants to know who he is, until he finds out he's some kind of monster. It's as if sweet naive Linus from Ocean's Eleven keeps seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley in the mirror.

In that sense, Bourne Identity fits clearly into a popular strand of Y2K cinema. The mindbending identity-memory twists of Fight Club and Memento are much flashier, but Damon's a recognizable sibling to Ed Norton's nameless-aimless narrator and Guy Pearce's vengeful semi-amnesiac: sad young-ish men cut off from themselves, willfully unaware of their own bad actions. But where those films get a lot of their mileage from a narcotized placelessness, Bourne is all local flavor. I love your Before Sunrise comparison, and I love when Marie nervously rattles off her life story in the car, a one-sided conversation that lonely Jason finds very relaxing. Recall the sweet-yet-weighty line he tells her when they almost part ways in Paris: "How could I forget about you? You're the only person I know."

The movie carries one missing possibility, a bit ridiculous yet meaningful. After Marie decides to join Jason on the run, there's a wonderful scene where they plan an elaborate bit of subterfuge, a massive info-heist which Marie quickly resolves by just asking a smiley guy at the hotel's front desk. In spy-movie terms, this is an Indiana-Jones-ends-a-swordfight-with-a-gun moment. I want more of them working together, but after Jason runs out solo to the (amazing) farmhouse gun duel, Marie leaves him alone for the final Parisian act. That doesn't ruin the movie, which stays true to its very bleak vision of the American espionage system as a self-defeating monstrosity. Actually, our last view of Cox might be as horrifying as the franchise ever gets: Having called in a hit on his own man, the CIA Deputy Director chirpily obscures his actions underneath Congressional paperwork before moving onto a request for more well-funded murder squads.

The American intelligence apparatus is always the villain in a Bourne movie. That makes all the films worthwhile and transgressive — and I do like all the sequels (besides 2016's Vegas dirge.) That said, the later Bournes lose a lot of this film's casual humor, and the how-am-I-doing-this awe. Their gunmetal sorrow was reflective of the times: the general creep of Patriot Act paranoia plus Forever War nihilism. What's amazing is that Identity got there so early. It's a film shot pre-9/11 that somehow feels post-post-9/11, embodying a skepticism about America's actions abroad right when the conventional wisdom was frantic flag-waving.

I know you're someone who thinks a lot about the Bourne series, Leah. Should we just appreciate that a movie so eccentric and casually paranoid became a blockbuster franchise? And as a music expert, can you tell me all of your thoughts about the movie-ending use of Moby's "Extreme Ways"? How did that become Bourne's anthem?

Bourne Identity
Bourne Identity

Universal

LEAH: Ha! If anything dates the movie, it's all that clattering drum-and-bass on the soundtrack (by composer John Powell), but the Moby kicker is a true 2002 mwah. One thing that stood out to me, both for this era and our current one, was how few bodies Bourne leaves behind. There's plenty of violence, via bullets and fists and knives and, of course, office supplies, but Jason rarely delivers death unless he has to, at least when it comes to innocent bystanders. Whether it's a Swiss night patrol or a security guard standing in his way at an embassy, he'll knock a guy out (or maybe down the stairs), but he pretty much never goes for the kill shot.

After watching The Sum of All Fears wipe out half of Baltimore at a football game the other week — and seeing how casually collateral damage is handled these days in nearly every film with a colon or a blood-splash font in the title — that feels oddly comforting to me. And it's proof that a movie can still be thrilling without full Call of Duty carnage every time the hero has to move through a crowd, or you know, retrieve the Parisian hotel bill of his deceased alter ego.

I love what you said about the post-post-9/11 of it all, and the pitting of Bourne not against some shadowy Russian or Chinese or Middle Eastern conglomerate, but his own makers: Cooper, Treadstone's disappointed daddy; Cox, both peeved and ruthless (who does "no ruth" as smoothly as this guy?). It was prescient, absolutely, but also a little bit startling, the bareness of it in a blockbuster like this. I think of Owen's final line before he dies, less mad than just sad and a little bit bewildered: "Look at what they make you give."

I was reluctant to call this a new classic before our rewatch, Darren, but I think I'm over that now. The sequels may have diluted some of the power of the franchise, but the O.G. Bourne still stands. To quote another great movie line, approximately: "We gave him our heart. He gave us a pen."

Read past 2002 rewatches: