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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #365: The Bourne Identity


One of the few spies to give James Bond a run for his money, Jason Bourne re-shaped Matt Damon’s career and gave the world one of the best action franchises of the last decade. Although more a hyperkinetic assassin than an actual spy, Bourne can slip in and out of a place without getting noticed, disarm a roomful of armed men and walk out of deadly car chases with no more than a slight limp. His adventures have taken him from France to England, from India to Russia and to a (presumably) last stop in New York. The more impressive trait is that he can do all this while suffering from brain damage that has left him with amnesia.

If I recall correctly, I saw the first Bourne adventure, “The Bourne Identity,” while flying somewhere over the Andes. This first chapter, directed by Doug Liman, first came out in 2002 and back then I was living in Santiago, Chile. Every time my parents and I would fly home to Québec it would take approximately ten hours by airplane, so that is a lot of films seen on a tiny screen. Between the jet lag, the bad audio and the initially confusing storyline, it was a little bit difficult to follow the plot. However I eventually got the entire trilogy as a Christmas present, so now everything makes perfect sense.

At first nothing made sense for Bourne when fishermen found his body floating off the coast of France. The ship’s doctor finds no identification on him except for a tiny laser projector surgically implanted in his body. When the man wakes up he has no idea who he is or how he ended up in the water. However, the laser projector gives him a clue: the number of a safe deposit box in Zürich, Germany. Once the ship docks the man with no past sets off to find out his identity.

At the bank, he opens his box to find a passport with the name Jason Bourne. Unfortunately there are several other passports with the same picture, but different names. There is also a large amount of money for different countries and a handgun. Before he leaves the bank, an employee recognizes him and makes a phone call. Soon the police are chasing Bourne to the American consulate and while evading his pursuers, he displays the uncanny ability to both outthink and evade a dozen armed pursuers. After his escape he pays a Swiss woman, Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), to drive him to Paris, the address on his passport.

Meanwhile, a determined CIA big-shot named Conklin (Chris Cooper) is following Bourne’s every move. Conklin knows everything about Bourne: who he is, what he can do and where he could go. Fearing Bourne has become a threat, he makes it his mission to track him down and kill him. This sets the template for the rest of the movies. You have a person telling a room-full of CIA employees looking at computer screens to track down Bourne while assassins are waiting for their orders to terminate him. What ends up happening instead is Bourne sneaking up behind them and demanding to be left alone so he can piece his mind back together. 

As far as thrillers go, the Bourne movies are some of the best out there. They really hit their peak with the second and third features directed by Paul Greengrass, but Doug Liman deserves credit for kick-starting the series with a great car chase in the streets of Paris. A shootout in the French countryside between Bourne and an assassin played by Clive Owen is also particularly memorable.
During my first year of university I found a worn out copy of the Robert Ludlum book on which the movie is based. There are vast differences as the movie is set during the Cold War and involves the terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Therefore the Damon movies are far from faithful in terms of story, but they definitely capture the spirit of the books. As for Matt Damon, he IS Jason Bourne just like the poster says.

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