What is it about action movies when you are young? I suppose I still like them, but they do not give me the same thrill as they once did. The price of getting older, perhaps. Do not get me wrong, I will still watch them. Another factor is that I am actually less discerning these days when it comes to my viewing preferences. Because I seek to serve you all with these reviews, I will watch almost anything. In doing so, I have found that action films are typically less well told stories than most other genres. They trade death defying stunts for sensible plots. It makes a certain amount of sense. If you are selling your film as jam packed with shootouts, car chases, and explosions, you are going to be a little light on character development. Then there is The Bourne Identity (2002). This past weekend, since there were no cinematic offerings of note, I stayed in with my girlfriend and perused her DVD collection. Among them was the original of an action series that got less original after the first. You will see why after you read this article.
We start The Bourne Identity with a lifeless body (Matt Damon) floating in the Mediterranean Sea. He is found in a storm by Italian fishermen off the coast of France. When he comes to, he cannot remember who he is, or how he got to be on this vessel. Still, the crew is kind to him, and he repays their generosity by working on the boat until it gets to port. The only clue he has to his, ahem, identity is a holographic device dug out of his skin that lists a Swiss bank account. Given a little money upon reaching port, he then travels to Zurich to the bank. Once there, he is shown a safety deposit box containing an American passport listing his name as Jason Bourne, a gun, several other forms of identification, and a great deal of money in different currencies. He also discovers along the way that he has a number of seemingly innate skills, mostly in the form of martial arts, but also languages. In any case, he decides that the passport is his one clue, and he decides to head for the American embassy. Unfortunately, we are also shown that there is much more to Jason Bourne. At the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia, the head of a black operations program known as Treadstone, Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper), learns that his program’s Jason Bourne is not dead as presumed, and is behaving erratically. Seeing Jason as a potential security threat, he decides to activate other operatives in the Treadstone program in order to kill Jason. Agent Conklin also sends directives to all agencies around Europe to be on the lookout for Jason and to arrest on sight. This message gets to the embassy as Jason arrives, and he is soon recognized. Using the skills he did not know he possessed, he artfully evades detection and slips out of the building. He then encounters Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), a German national who Jason recognized as arguing with one of the officials in the embassy. He then offers her $20,000 to drive him to Paris to the address listed on a French driver’s license he also had in his safety deposit box. Unsure of the man, but grateful for the money, she agrees, and during their travels they begin to form a bond. This is needed because not long after they get to his expansive Parisian apartment, he is attacked by one of the other Treadstone operatives. Though Jason triumphs, he realizes that this location is not safe. He also tries to convince Marie to leave, but she stays by his side. Part of the reason she does so is because among the items found on the other Treadstone operative is a detailed dossier on her. Seeing Jason’s skills, she decides he is her best bet for protection. They get a hotel room together and change her appearance as much as possible. Staying on the move, they then leave Paris for the home of one of Marie’s friends, a family man by the name of Eamon (Tim Dutton). Unfortunately, another Treadstone assassin finds them there as well, and Jason is forced to contend with another attempt on their life. Successful once more, Jason uses the cell phone he finds on his assailant to contact the people behind these attacks. This puts him on the phone with Agent Conklin. Sending Marie away for good, Jason agrees to meet Agent Conklin in Paris. After sniffing out a trap by Agent Conklin, Jason follows the CIA man to a safehouse. The encounter with Agent Conklin restores Jason’s memory. In exchange for Agent Conklin’s life, Jason instructs that he will be walking away from the life he once led. Agent Conklin is then murdered in the streets of Paris by the last of the Treadstone agents, the hit being ordered by Conklin’s boss, Ward Abbott (Brian Cox). We end with Jason finding Marie in a Greek seaside village, and the two presumably live happily ever after.
If only, but this is The Bourne Identity and not its sequels. What makes this film charming, despite the violence, for this Catholic reviewer, is the amnesia Jason experiences. It is not a unique plot device, but for this film it reveals Jason’s basic goodness. Yes, he has the ability to kill you using everything from a gun to a ball point pen, but he also seems reluctant to do so. When you receive the training Jason clearly underwent, there is a certain part of you that you have to switch off in order to do the unthinkable. Put more succinctly: Jason is a reluctant killer. This Catholic will call that a pro-life message, even though Jason does end the lives of a number of people along the way. What really underscores his character, though, is a scene I did not get to in the plot synopsis. What triggers Jason’s recall is Agent Conklin informing the former assassin about the failed mission that led to him being adrift at sea. Jason had been sent to assassinate Nykwana Wombosi (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), an exiled African dictator that believes that the world is out to kill him. Jason had snuck onto Wombosi’s boat and had a gun pointed at the disgraced despot’s head. What stayed Jason’s hand was seeing Wombosi’s nearby children. Jason is then shot as he flees, prompting to his amnesia. As I hinted at a moment ago, people in these lines of work are often asked to do things that, objectively speaking, ride the line of morality. I applaud Jason because he saw an act that clearly went over that line, and his conscience told him not to cross it. One thing I often tell people when it comes to that tricky business of hearing God’s voice is that it often comes in the form of those little naggings you get in the back of your mind when you know something is not right. Faith is an interior venture, and heeding those promptings is a great start for improving your relationship with God. Now, if only Jason had entered the religious life. . . .
I was about to make a comparison to the Scream franchise in terms of the original being the best installment. While true, I will take The Bourne Identity every time over that, or any other slasher flick. It may not have the same impact on me as it once did, but it is still a solid movie. Aside from the violence, there is also not much to dissuade one from seeing it. It does well with character development, but much of that has to do with the amnesia angle. That is not something well sustained in the follow-ups. At any rate, this one gets a solid recommendation.