The world of espionage provides fertile ground for storytelling, but when it comes to movies, the dangerous game tends to boil down to over-the-top jaunts and weird gadgetry, or bleak affairs that stress how dull spying tends to be until somebody sells you out for a bullet or jail time. A happy medium between high-octane action and the cynicism of the secrets business has proven elusive, especially for an audience-friendly franchise format. That is, until we got a super-spy for the 21st century in the form of Jason Bourne, and his inaugural adventure, The Bourne Identity.
The story begins as some fishermen in the Mediterranean Sea pull a body out of the water who has a few bullets in his back. They nurse the mysterious loner—who appears to be an American—back to health, but he has lost this memory, and he has a strange little gadget buried beneath the skin on his hip. The gadget displays a Swiss bank account, which gives our amnesiac hero the first clue to figuring out who he is, how he got his formidable fighting and evasion skills, and how he ended up face down in the Med with a few cases of lead poisoning in his back. In short order, he learns he is Jason Bourne, a CIA assassin whose masters are hellbent on recapturing or killing him over a botched hit on an African despot. Before long, Bourne is the most wanted man in Europe, forced to put his considerable skill set to its ultimate test while staying a step ahead of the world’s most powerful spy agency. Whether he will survive enough to forge his own future, however, depends on whether or not he can successfully reckon with his recent past. Just because he has no memory doesn’t mean he has no history. And in Bourne’s business, history is something that will get you killed.
The Bourne Identity departs substantially from the 1980 Robert Ludlum novel that inspired it, but it creates a strong identity of its own in its gripping depiction of spycraft, a choppy and fast-moving sense of action cinematography, and compelling use of Bourne’s own POV to make this a movie felt more than it is watched. The fight scenes are direct and brutal highlighting the lethality of the moment rather than the athleticism of the combatants. The gunfights are no-nonsense, where every bullet has somebody’s name on it. And the escape and evasion sequences are second to none, showing off how Jason Bourne’s superpower is knowing how to use a any urban environment to his advantage. We see this most in a car chase in which Bourne and his impromptu female accomplice lead the police through the skinniest side streets of Paris in a sequence that is as much a display of Bourne’s driving skill as it is of the Mini Cooper’s enduring reputation as the absolute best micro car for outrunning the cops.
What makes The Bourne Identity a cut above a potboiler spy thriller, though, are its characters—especially Bourne himself, whose search for his identity quickly begins to reveal information that he’d rather kept hidden. But we also get to know Marie Kreutz, a woman who gets pulled into Bourne’s world, as well as the various black ops folks running Treadstone, the program that spawned Bourne and a small army of agents much like him. As we get to know each of the players, we see that they are all pawns in a great game of lies, murder and betrayal. Some of them might have other pawns underneath them, but there are no kings on this board, and they all know it. It adds a kind of dark poignancy to the proceedings, as we see Bourne and Marie navigate a maze that isn’t supposed to have any exits, all in the shadow of a mission gone wrong and the unrelenting vengeance of the guy who was the subject of it. He is our reminder that those who think they’re ahead of the game are the ones guaranteed not to win it.
A sense of paranoia hangs over everything, and Bourne’s lack of knowledge offers no easy solution, for whatever he learns about his own backstory is likely to only partial information or a pack of carefully crafted lies. One tends to accept this kind of moral ambiguity when signing up for this kind of life, but things are a little different when waking up from a near-death experience and no longer the same person who agreed to this line of work. In this, the Bourne Identity becomes the perfect spy story for the post-9/11 era, where lies and deception aren’t just the province of black bag operators, but of the politicians who send them into battle and the public who are supposed to be protected by all of this apparatus. But are they, really? Nobody really knows, least of all the folks doing all the fighting and dying.
This sets up the moment of truth in the story’s third act, when Bourne and Marie hide out at Marie’s old boyfriend’s house in the French countryside while they are stalked by the Professor, one of Bourne’s fellow Treadstone assassins. The importance of the scene isn’t that Bourne gets the upper hand in their encounter—by now, we are fairly certain he will prevail. What matters here is the conversation Bourne and the Professor share afterwards, as the Professor reveals he is just as much in the dark as Bourne is about the missions they are tasked with. But more than that, the Professor speaks with an unexpected friendliness and fellowship, especially from a guy who was trying to kill him moments before. But in a job where there is so little honor, honesty or closure, one’s victor deserves a little professional courtesy, especially among such elite products of the Treadstone murder factory. Besides, the Professor’s suffering is finally at an end. Jason Bourne’s has only just begun.