The Bourne Identity – Doug Liman and the start of something big. (Film review)
It was for a good reason it was supposed the Jason Bourne films might eventually become an American answer to the James Bond films. When Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity first appeared on the big screens, we weren’t necessarily unfamiliar with the plotting, but the director of the successful Swingers in 1996 and Go in 1999 had changed direction in the first few years of his success, and taken on a big budget project that it was hoped might combine the feel of his earlier indie works, with the whole European “spy-thing” that seemed to work so well for the Bond films. 2002 saw The Born Identity birthed in June and Die Another Day come out in November, and the energy in the room (despite the success of the Bond film) with the exit of Pierce Brosnan was that Bond might be on his way out, and we might (finally) be ready to replace him with an American. Since then Daniel Craig gave James Bond a thoroughly modern makeover, but still, whenever a Jason Bourne film is made in close proximity to a James Bond film (and lets face it, its not difficult for that to occur) there is usually the slight rumbles of a comparison.
As for Doug Liman himself, The Bourne Identity was a true departure from his earlier films. This is his first big budget action film, something he will stick with all the way through to the forthcoming Edge of Tomorrow, although it can be argued that, despite how clever he is with his action films, he’s never been quite as strong as he was with his first two films – except for Mr. and Mrs. Smith of course, but that is a bit of a happy accident due to his cast. Yet, The Bourne Identity was the success it was, largely due to Liman’s bull-headed vision, his ability to extract good performances and the “intelligence” quotient he applies to his films. For a film firmly ensconced in the action genre, The Bourne Identity has a lot going on that is fairly complicated to track, especially the cleverly underrated romance between Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) proving Doug Liman has an eye for a strong cast, and knows how to get the best from them. Matt Damon as the sensitive guy who suddenly finds out he is a spy and doesn’t like the idea, is as clever as casting the lead from Run Lola Run as a woman racing from the law, only to find she is suddenly a “bond girl” and doesn’t like the idea. Both Damon and Potente are severely against type, making The Bourne Identity not just a challenge to the Bond franchise, but a challenge to the authenticity of genre action/spy thriller tropes anyway.
Also a point of departure from the action/spy genre, further making The Bourne Identity an anti-genre-genre film, is the cat like reflexes of Jason Bourne. Our first vision of him in action (remember, we’ve never seen matt Damon like this before) is when he is laying on a part bench in Switzerland, approached by two policemen who are about to accuse him of loitering. Wihtin the conversation, Bourne discovers he can effectively speak Swiss-German, and then as soon as one of the officers reaches to touch him, he responds with breathtaking speed and accuracy and before we know it, there is a little pile of police at his feet. It is in this moment, we fall in love with Jason Bourne, the nice guy who can do all the stuff only a bad guy would dream of doing, only nice guy Jason can’t really help it. Posit this against the casual cold blooded and calculated moves of the relaxed and suave Bond, and you have another key point of difference, that Liman managed to retain, despite all the scripting and shooting problems the film was cursed with. Bourne’s serial number lodged in his ass starts with 007, just to further hammer down the connection.
Liman did a lot of the DP work himself, though the credits go to Oliver Wood. Still the hand-held stuff (I understand) is mostly Liman, at least conceptually, and in The Bourne Identity it works to add to the fast paced feel of a couple on the run. Europe in 2002 is a gray place, regularly shrouded in rain and snow. That our two principles speak European languages gives the film an added gravitas, completing the sophistication of the backdrop. Bourne and Kreutz race around the streets of Paris in a dilapidated Mini referencing other action genre flicks set on the European landscape. Liman fought hard to have the film shot in Europe, and it was a fight well worth winning.
All of this, including terrible script problems, and a flagging career for Damon somehow came together under Liman’s strength to produce the film that became the start of a successful franchise. In many ways it was the film no one would bet on, returning enormous odds for the few who did. The project was really spearheaded by Liman, so it was always his baby, starting from when he read the Ludlam book in his teens, through to waiting out fo the rights to mature out of Warner Bros hands and then flying to Robert Ludlum’s home himself in order to beg for the rights. Liman was also the brains that brought screenwriter Tony Gilroy, after the failure of its previous script writers, who went on to pen all the Bourne films. The final script, despite the success of the film, is fraught with problems, such as Julia Stiles final appearances obviously being spliced in from another shoot, and her character disappearing from the narrative all together. The Bourne Identity works, even with these glaring problems, and it did make me feel a little sad for the film that might have been; the film we lost.
But these were only the start of the problems, with Universal thinking more and more it was a mistake to try for an “indie aesthetic” on a genre film. An alternate “insurance” ending was made because the producers hated the snow hunt scene, thinking it didn’t carry enough of a punch for the end of the film, and there were many walkouts, fights and refusals as Liman tried to get scenes reshot, or changed. The film ended up skidding wildly off schedule, coming out far later than anticipated, and shocking everyone when it was an instant hit. However, the rifts were permanent and despite the overwhelming success of the film, Liman was never invited back to direct any sequels.
You can read more about the issues of The Bourne Identity in this nice anniversary piece in The Playlist.