With Matt Damon set to return to the role of Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin, James has once again handed me the reigns of Re-View column as I look back at where it all began. Remember Everything, Forgive Nothing…it’s The Bourne Identity Re-Viewed
In 1980, author Robert Ludlum wrote a novel about man with retro grade amnesia and a canny survival instinct. With no memory, he has to discover who he is and why there are so many government agencies and assassins trying to kill him. All this while pitted against legendary killer Carlos The Jackal That man was Jason Bourne. The book was a great success and is considered to be one of the greatest spy novels ever written. It was so popular Ludlum wrote two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) continuing Bourne’s battle with Carlos The Jackal.
Jump forward 10 years or so and Indie director Doug Liman starts the labour of love that is bringing The Bourne Identity to the big screen. He was a strange choice as his previous films, Swingers (1996) and Go (1999), were made on a micro budget and here he was in the year 2000 with Universal wanting him to make a big budget spy drama. Liman had loved the novel since high school and was thrilled at the prospect of making the film. To say the shoot was problematic would be an understatement.
For a start, the rights to the book were owned by Warner Bros, who had already adapted it into a TV mini series in 1988 with the stodgy, wrinkled Richard Chamberlain in the lead. In an effort to move things along, Liman flew out to speak to Ludlum personally, the author liked his vision and the two became friends. When the rights were finally secured, he approached Tony Gilroy, who at that point had written Armageddon and The Devil’s Advocate to write the script. Gilroy hated the story, thinking it was too big on action and should be stripped back to the basic premise of an amnesiac assassin who is trying to find out who he is and that everything else should be jettisoned. Liman agreed and the filming began. The pair would clash a lot during filming and a second writer was brought in.
After going out to Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise who both turned down the role. Liman wanted a different, younger hero and finally settled on Matt Damon. This was risky move as he had never played such a physically demanding role and following a couple of flops, his Good Will Hunting/Saving Private Ryan success was getting further and further away.
The filming was fraught with problems, re-writes after re-writes, producers leaving and a director with an arrogant streak (or one who stuck to his guns), who was going over budget. The studio wanted a big action film, the director and star wanted Tony Gilroy’s more stripped back version, tensions were high to the point where Damon almost walked off the film.
Finally, after a 2 year shooting schedule, multiple re-writes and many blazing on set rows the film was released in 2002. Interestingly, this film opened against another adapted spy novel, in Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, which would star Damon’s life long friend and collaborator Ben Affleck who was re-booting the Jack Ryan franchise. Both films were a financial success with Bourne coming out on top. Sadly however, Robert Ludlum died in 2001 and never saw the finished version of the film.
So, to the film itself. We open with a man floating in the water, he is rescued by a fishing boat and found to have been shot twice in the back and have the number of a Swiss bank account embedded in his hip, with no memory of how he got there. He unwittingly finds himself the target of numerous enemies. Is he the ruthless assassin he appears to be, will he live long enough to find the answers?
Given the problems that surrounded the production the fact that film makes sense at all is a miracle, never mind that fact that it is a totally entertaining thrilling action film. From the moment Jason Bourne takes out two cops who find him sleeping on a park bench we most definitely have ourselves a new action hero. There is a sense of realism here among the ridiculous situations (and there are a few). Coming from independent film, Liman’s hand held camera and the time he has taken to work with his actors pays off big time and helps set the more realistic tone.
Matt Damon is excellent as Jason Bourne, there really is no other way describe his performance. He looks like the all American blue eyed boy, who wants nothing more to be just that. He shows a real vulnerability as he pleads with Marie his companion for answers he know wont come, sat in a cafe, how he doesn’t know his name, but knows everything about the people in the cafe, the most likely place to find a gun and his own physical limitation . He is able to switch from this seamlessly to the ruthless killer who can turn anything, even a pen into a weapon. It is a star making performance and would become his signature role.
In support, German actress Franka Potente is good foil for Damon as Marie, she grounds Bourne and helps him come to terms with who he is and helps keep the killer in him in check. Brian Cox makes a brilliant shadowy villain pulling the strings and Chris Cooper elevates the CIA stooge trying to clean things up. Clive Owen is in there too as a CIA asset sent to kill Bourne.
If you look closely enough there are cracks to be found, some of the minor characters seem to drift in and out, the sub-plot with the exiled African Dictator Wombosi doesn’t make much sense and the ending seems quite rushed as if the script pages just got faxed over that day but to be honest you are just having too much fun to care. The stripped back, kinetic, sometimes gruesome action scenes and an utterly engaging lead actor gives you more than enough of an excuse to over look the films short comings.
14 years later and I still cheer when Bourne duffs those two cops up at the start, kills the guy with the pen or not only uses a henchman as a human shield, but a human elevator. Then there is one of my all time favourite lines of dialogue…
“I swear to God, if I even feel somebody behind me, there is no measure to how fast and how hard I will bring this fight to your doorstep.” Jason Bourne. Badass.
What happened next? Despite all the issues with the shoot, the film went on to take $214m at the box office and propelled Matt Damon to super-stardom. Tony Gilroy was hired to adapted Ludlum’s other books, but the tension between Universal and Doug Liman saw him replaced by Paul Greengrass for the next two installments. The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Both films out distance Identity, as Gilroy retained the novels’ title only focusing more on Bourne’s journey and the shadowy CIA agencies trying to silence him and Paul Greengrass’ tight, kinetic direction dialed into what Liman started and made it even more thrillingly realistic and wonderfully brutal.
The realistic, striped back nature of the action scenes and box office success would open the door return for a younger, rougher, more brutal James Bond and re-invigorate not only that franchise, but the Mission:Impossible series, both “borrowing” Identity’s realism.
With Paul Greengrass deciding not to return following The Bourne Ultimatum, which was the series crowning achievement, and Matt Damon reluctant to return without his director, writer Tony Gilroy stepped in the director’s chair for The Bourne Legacy (2012) This slightly dull side-quel following Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross, a soldier on another project forced to go on the run following the events of Ultimatum.
Doug Liman would go on to direct action films like Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and has returned to Universal to helm next year’s highly anticipated Mena (2017) with Tom Cruise.
Back with Bourne though and Wednesday July 27th, sees Greengrass and Damon return. Jason Bourne is back, my tickets are booked, how about you?
Jason Bourne is released in cinemas in the UK on July 27th.
Thanks for reading. Hope you folks enjoyed yourselves, catch ya later on down the trail.