There’s a moment in every kid’s life when they discover that the adults in the room are just as clueless as anybody else. That’s usually a rough time. Worse is when you discover that the adults in the room are evil, and are in fact disdainful of the concept of good. The kids dragging themselves to school while their classmates and teachers die on ventilators have recently come to learn this sobering fact. For those of us of draft age in 2001, though, 9/11 was really the moment of epiphany. The ineptitude and laziness that led up to it, the furious scramble to put in place a useless security apparatus after it, the senseless choices to invade foreign countries when what was really necessary to bring the perpetrators to justice was already in place, all illustrated very clearly that the grown-ups just did not know what they were doing unless what they were doing was bad and wrong. They had endless, manic zest for that kind of thing, and no credit limit on making it happen.
The Bourne Identity, which turns 20 this year just a little bit after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which the United States spent trillions of dollars to definitively lose), is a fascinating watch today for several reasons aside from marveling at how little Matt Damon has aged. It’s the kind of film that big studios have basically stopped making anymore in favor of superhero films. There are surely visual effects or green screens somewhere in it, but if there are, you are generally unable to tell where. It is a movie with practical effects, roaring car engines, breaking glass, bloody fistfights and one good gratuitous explosion.
It is also a movie that has glorious, bone-deep, inspiring contempt for the U.S. security apparatus and the sneering bureaucrats who think nothing of spending $30 million dollars not on cancer research or new textbooks for Atlanta schoolchildren, but to make stupid weapons that, surprise surprise, leave trails of unnecessary and appalling collateral damage in other countries. The Bourne Identity and its two matter-of-fact, quite-good sequels ask “What if one of these absurd, unnecessary, wasteful weapons had its laser guidance system accidentally pointed at the guys who designed it? And the missile in question was Matt Damon’s fist?”
It’s a bit on the nose that a movie about a guy named “Bourne” begins with our protagonist pulled from water, awakening as a completely blank slate. Jason Bourne (Damon) has near-total amnesia. He can read, write and speak a babel of tongues, instinctively assess threats, and punch out Zurich police and field strip their stupid little guns without thinking, but he otherwise has no clue about his past life. He only learns his name is supposedly “Jason Bourne” after he follows up on a Swiss bank account number encoded into a laser thingy that was surgically implanted into his hip. (Admittedly, a Post-It would probably have been washed out, considering that the fishing ship that saved his life found him several dozen miles off the coast of Marseilles.)
Bourne also happens to be “John Michael Kane” and several other aliases, all represented by a rainbow coalition of passports stashed in the bottom of his safe deposit box, along with a hoard of cash and a handgun. He’s confused and scared about his situation. The Pentagon (or the CIA, or whoever it is) meanwhile, are alarmed: One of their top-secret one-man-army killing machines has gone missing and now seems to be gearing up to go rogue. Why else would he go clean out his stash after failing his mission to assassinate an exiled African leader (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)?
We are assured by a room of very annoyed white men—who wear a collective $10,000 in Joseph A. Bank apparel and whose heads warrant no more than a hundo of monthly expense at Great Clips—that this leader still being alive is extremely inconvenient for them. They’re even angrier somebody had the cojones to actually try to kill him (and worse, fail in a way that might hang it on them). One of those annoyed white men is Abbott (Brian Cox, who survives this film only to get schooled in the sequel). Beneath him is the unrepentant Conklin (Chris Cooper), the one directly handling Treadstone, Bourne’s black-ops outfit, and who immediately decides Bourne needs to die.
Nikki: He killed our man.
Conklin: Well, you’ve gotta clean that up.
Nikki: No, I can’t clean it up. There’s a body in the streets.
Nikki: There’s police! This is Paris!
Conklin is your favorite boss: He needs everything right now no matter what time zone you happen to be in, wants you to hack into things faster, and does not have any time anywhere on his calendar to talk about how literally all of this is his fault. There’s nothing flashy or showy in his performance. Very little that’s even overtly sinister. He probably has a wife and kid he’s planning to take on a trip to the Upper Peninsula in a week right after he’s done not tipping the housekeeper. Entitled arrogance is sort of the whole point of his character.
Desperate, confused, but way better at doing spy shit than any of these chumbolones, Bourne falls in with lost European drifter Marie (Franka Potente, whose death in the opening of the sequel is a crime). Conklin’s privacy-shredding surveillance technology has no idea what to do with poor Marie, who we’re introduced to as she’s trying to secure a visa and who’s barely had a stable address in years. Marie and Bourne lead the spooks on a chase across Europe, complete with car chases, fistfights and Matt Damon yelling at/killing a bunch of guys who are so reflexively violent, suspicious and cynical that it doesn’t occur to any of them that they could maybe try talking to him first.
The Bourne trilogy—Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum—are loosely based on the work of airplane-novel author extraordinaire Robert Ludlum, who was inspired to write the books in part by a claimed bout of temporary amnesia. They’re set during the Cold War and focus on a game of cat and mouse between Bourne and another assassin. It’s the kind of dynamic that’s briefly explored in Damon’s tangle with Clive Owen’s cold sniper The Professor, but abandoned along with the whole milieu of the book in favor of a story that more resonated with global politics at the turn of our century.
That update ensured the plot went down easy. The action sequences, on the other hand, are what make the Bourne movies important, and in my mind infamous, in cinema history. I’m sorry to say that the editing is just plain terrible, and for some reason seemed to set the standard for a lot of action movies in the coming decade and change. It’s not as bad in The Bourne Identity as it is in the film’s two sequels, which throw their camera in a blender, but it’s impossible not to notice that sometimes when Damon throws a punch, you see three or four cuts before it connects. If it’s trying to evoke the frenetic nature of the fight, it sort of works. More often than not, it feels like it was covering up actors unable to get all the way through a choreographed routine.
It’s still some straightlaced, no-frills action, and it’s actually one of the best film trilogies, in my estimation, if you gauge it based on how well it tells a cohesive story. The filmmakers cared about the small stuff, even as they were staging rooftop acrobatics and chases through claustrophobic Old World streets on scooters and ugly little economy cars, too. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon purposefully uses one of his other aliases to get the attention of his former employers, who seem addicted to getting their subordinates killed trying to hunt him. The alias is one of the ones glimpsed briefly among the passports in the safe deposit box in the first film.
Beneath all the style and craft, director Doug Liman also manages to remind you that every stage of this clusterfuck is happening because of the ineptitude and pointless ruthlessness of Conklin and Abbott, and the disinterest of the Congressional committee that doesn’t ask twice about Treadstone’s line item in the defense budget—a line we know was at least $120 million if it cost the same amount of money to psychologically destroy all the agents we see in the movie as it did to do so to Bourne.
I suppose that even in 2002 money, they could afford it, though: The U.S. spent 11% of its 2021 budget on defense—a typical expenditure, about half of its discretionary spending. That 11%, $801 billion, didn’t defend us against COVID, school shootings, poverty or hunger. And just as it is doing nothing to defend us against any invasions right now, it did nothing to stop the terrorist attack that occurred right before this movie came out.
When Conklin does finally discover that Bourne’s whole problem is that his mind has been broken by the psychological torture Treadstone uses to train and control its assets, the bossman is actually annoyed, incredulous. How dare the guy he tormented not carry through on his assignment to kill a world leader whose politics we don’t like? He rants at Bourne as if Bourne does not have a gun on him, and seems kind of surprised when Bourne beats the stuffing out of him, kills his whole security team and stalks off. Conklin does not seem surprised when his own asset guns him down, though. We do tend to suspect others of our own treachery.
I almost wrote that Liman couldn’t have known how the next decades would prove the U.S. security apparatus as inept and intransigent as his fun, sexy spy movie depicts them, but then I remembered that even at age 19, I apparently had a healthier skepticism toward CIA bullshit than Colin Powell claims to have had. Liman, like many who witnessed America’s violence (accidental and viciously intentional) in the wake of 9/11, probably knew exactly how it would turn out. In crafting a movie that wasn’t afraid to say so and was also a pretty darn good action flick, he fused the globetrotting adventures of James Bond with the caustic cynicism that defined Le Carré’s cinematic legacy, kicking off a trilogy that is still great to watch back-to-back-to-back.
But then the cinematic landscape moved on, and a not-too-successful attempt at a third sequel failed to revive the franchise. Like its protagonist, the Bourne story made some noise when the time was right, then vanished into the crowd.
Kenneth Lowe would stand in line for this. There’s always room in life for this. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.