The Bourne Identity at 20: the surprise hit that changed action cinema

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 newcomer, with hits like The Rock and Armageddon redirecting the sleek style of Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer into high-concept releases. But he seemed content to burn the genre; once you’ve saved the world from an asteroid the size of Texas, there’s really nowhere to go.

And then came The Bourne Identity, a film that would influence the future of action cinema so much that it doesn’t look the least bit dated today. Providing a template for both the rest of the Mission: Impossible franchise and the Daniel Craig-led James Bond reboot, The Bourne Identity nailed the modern action movie formula: a stoic intelligence agent who has a complicated with his own government. A cross-world adventure with at least one breathtaking car chase and plenty of clever melee combat. A love story that does not interfere with the hero’s sense of duty. And to distinguish itself from its predecessors, jokes are kept to a minimum.

Now five films and a series into the Bourne experience, the film that started it all has been somewhat forgotten. Critics and awards bodies seem to have decided that the second and third films — 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum — are the best of the bunch. In these films, director Paul Greengrass overwhelmed the viewer with his shaky, fast-paced camera style, creating more immediate, even nauseating, action sequences. But The Bourne Identity is even better. The techniques Greengrass overdid in Supremacy and Ultimatum are applied more judiciously in the first movie. Its director Doug Liman, who honed his craft on independent films Swingers and Go, sometimes used handheld cameras to make the fight scenes more real. He instructed his cameramen not to read the script too closely, so that they follow the action instead of anticipating it. He applied these techniques with a fine-tipped pen, while Greengrass painted with a wider brush, and the result is not an avant-garde action movie 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 Swingers movie, and maybe even longer than that. In a sense, history was in his blood. Liman’s father was chief counsel for the Iran-Contra hearings and even interviewed Col. Oliver North; Liman later acknowledged that North was the inspiration for the film’s chief villain, Alexander Conklin, who oversees the covert assassination program known as Operation Treadstone. The Bourne franchise may have been founded during the Reagan era (the book was first published in 1980), when anti-government sentiment was a staple of political rhetoric and action movies, but his politics have proven to be a perfect fit for the 2000s. namely unlimited access to surveillance cameras, phone lines, credit card activity and bank statements. In the Bourne Films Intelligence Agency, this is accepted as the way of doing business, so the film stands as a pointed critique of the expansion of government powers after 9/11.

In fact, the film’s relationship to the 9/11 attacks provides a fascinating case study of how Hollywood responded to the tragedy. The Bourne Identity was originally scheduled for release on September 7, 2001, but Liman’s constant battles with producers over the film’s direction pushed the release back to 2002. Had it been released on schedule, it’s easy to imagine that it is a failure at the box office. Most films released in the days after 9/11 failed, but American audiences would have been particularly disinterested in a film about international intrigue that portrayed the US government as the villain. Anticipating this, the producers convinced Liman to shoot new scenes to make the intelligence agents less evil, although they were never used. Liman won this battle, as well as the war. Over time, as public opinion turned to criticism of the Bush administration’s overreach in combating 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 movies that inherited The Bourne Identity’s action movie tropes have left their politics alone. The Mission: Impossible franchise offers an enthusiastic 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 against it, and these films rarely reference real-world issues. The James Bond films essentially play the same game; while political intrigue often finds its way into the plot, the most memorable villain is always a macabre thug. 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 to continue the Bourne franchise – including the recent Treadstone, a USA network series about the shady origins of the black ops program – was 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 up to that point in his career. Bourne gave him a reliable hit franchise, as well as a character he will always be associated with. And it’s fair to wonder if Bourne helped Americans find their own identity. At a time when American government officials relied on collective amnesia as it led a country to war astray, The Bourne Identity reflected a growing skepticism among the American public that ultimately led to action, both in the streets and in the voting booths. No handheld camera required.

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