The Bourne Identity at 20: the surprise hit that changed action film-making | Action and adventure films

In the early 2000s, the action movie was in mortal danger. The reliable heroes of the 80s and 90s – Sly, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson – were getting old and out of touch. Director Michael Bay was the new guy on the block, with hits like The Rock and Armageddon that repurposed the slick style of Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer into high-concept outings. But he seemed content to burn out the genre; once you’ve saved the world from an asteroid the size of Texas, there’s really nowhere else to go.

And then came The Bourne Identity, a film that would so heavily influence the future of action film-making that it doesn’t feel the least bit dated today. Providing a model for both the rest of the Mission: Impossible franchise and the Daniel Craig-led reboot of James Bond, The Bourne Identity nailed the formula of the modern action film: a stoic intelligence agent who has a complicated relationship with his own government. A globe-trotting adventure with at least one heart-stopping car chase and lots of nifty hand-to-hand combat. A love story but one that doesn’t get in the way of the hero’s sense of purpose. And to distinguish itself from its predecessors, the quips are kept to a minimum.

Now five movies and one series into the Bourne experience, the film that started it all has been somewhat forgotten. Critics and awards bodies seem to have decided the second and third films – 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum – are the best of the bunch. In those films, director Paul Greengrass overwhelmed the viewer with his shaky-cam, quick-cutting style, creating action sequences that felt more immediate, even nauseating. But The Bourne Identity is still better. The techniques that Greengrass overdid in Supremacy and Ultimatum are applied more judiciously in the first film. Its director Doug Liman, who honed his craft on independent films Swingers and Go, occasionally used handheld cameras to make the fight scenes feel more real. He instructed his camera operators not to read the script too closely, so that they would be following along with the action instead of anticipating it. He applied these techniques with a fine-point pen, whereas Greengrass painted with a broader brush, and the result is not an avant garde action film but a satisfying blockbuster with a few key stylistic flourishes.

Liman had been trying to make The Bourne Identity since the success of his first film Swingers, and maybe even longer than that. In a sense, the story was in his blood. Liman’s father was chief counsel in the Iran-Contra hearings and even interrogated Colonel Oliver North; Liman later acknowledged that North was the inspiration for the film’s chief villain Alexander Conklin, who oversees the covert assassinations program known as Operation Treadstone. The Bourne franchise may have been founded in the Reagan era (the book was first published in 1980), when anti-government sentiment was a staple of both political rhetoric and action films, but its politics proved a neat fit for the 2000s. The government bad guys in The Bourne Identity and its sequels rely on the tools that were the source of much public debate in the era of the Patriot Act, namely an unlimited access to surveillance cameras, phone lines, credit card activity and bank records. In the intelligence agency of the Bourne movies, this is accepted as the way of doing business, so the film comes off as a pointed critique of the government’s post-9/11 expansion of powers.

In fact, the film’s relationship to the 9/11 attacks provide a fascinating case study of how Hollywood responded to the tragedy. The Bourne Identity was originally set to be released on 7 September 2001, but Liman’s constant battles with the producers over the direction of the film pushed the release to 2002. If it had been released on schedule, it’s easy to imagine it being a failure at the box office. Most films released in the days after 9/11 flopped, but the American public would have been particularly uninterested in a movie about international intrigue that portrays the US government as the villain. Anticipating this, the producers convinced Liman to shoot new scenes to make the intelligence operatives less villainous, although they were never used. Liman won that battle, as well as the war. In time, as public sentiment shifted towards criticism of the Bush administration’s overreach in fighting the war on terror, the Bourne films became a touchstone for civil libertarians.

Of course, Hollywood has a way of absorbing its radical content into a more conservative machine, and the films that inherited the action movie tropes of The Bourne Identity left its politics alone. The Mission: Impossible franchise offers a rousing defense of the status quo; while Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt often finds himself at odds with the US government, he never holds a grudge, and rarely do those films make any reference to real-world issues. The James Bond movies basically play the same game; while political intrigue often finds its way into the plot, the more memorable villain is always some ghoulish rogue. These days, the new villains are rogue spies-turned-terrorists (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, No Time to Die) and tech CEOs (Jurassic World Dominion), and all attempts at continuing the Bourne franchise – including the recent Treadstone, a USA network series about the black ops program’s shady origins – have been met with a collective shrug.

But in 2002, Bourne found his identity, and helped create one for Matt Damon, who had largely focused on prestige dramas to that point in his career. Bourne gave him a reliable blockbuster franchise, as well as a character with whom he will always be associated. And it’s fair to wonder if Bourne helped Americans find their own identity. At a time when US government officials were counting on collective amnesia as it misled a country to war, The Bourne Identity reflected a growing skepticism within the American public that eventually led to action, both in the streets and at the voting booths. No handheld cameras required.

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