Spy 100, #16.1: The Bourne Identity

I saw The Bourne Identity (2002) in the theater back when it came out, well before my total immersion into the world of spy films began. Today, rewatching it, I get the sense that I would have felt like I’d seen it before, even if I hadn’t: it’s that full of classic spy tropes. The story opens when Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is fished out of the Mediterranean Sea by a fishing crew, with two bullets in his back, a mysterious Swiss bank account number, and a wicked case of amnesia. In order to solve the mystery of his identity, he travels to Zurich to access the account, where he finds a box filled with passports, money, guns, and spy gear. It’s immediately clear he’s a spy, but for whom, and why can’t he remember anything? With the help of a German woman named Marie (Franka Potente), he aims to find out, despite the attempts of his enemies, whoever they are, to have him eliminated.

The Bourne Identity is a spy hero origin story with well choreagraphed action scenes and a nifty, big concept hook. Damon makes an unlikely, accessible action hero, and he and Potente deliver a refreshingly unconventional romance-under-fire. For the most part, it handles its hokey amnesia plot device well, and the cast is seeded with solid supporting performers, including the devious Chris Cooper, and not-quite-famous yet guest stars Clive Owen, Julia Stiles, and Walton Goggins, among others. It’s got a lot going for it.

At the same time, it’s kind of uninvolving: lots of motion and energy, not a lot of character or depth. The plot felt very familiar; in particular, the mission backstory is a twist on the French film The Professional. I wonder if my reaction to it is mitigated by its influence; based on when it was released, I suspect it’s one of those films that changed the landscape, inspiring subsequent spy adventures such as the Bond reboots. Perhaps it simply doesn’t feel as fresh and exciting now as it did at the time.

In my book, it’s a solid but perhaps overrated entry on the list, which also includes its two sequels as part of this entry, which in the spirit of completism I will also review. I’ll be curious to see if including the entire, original trilogy strengthens the case for its ranking, or erodes it.

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