Films for the Gent: The Bourne Identity

Twenty years ago this summer, The Bourne Identity was released. It was an instant hit, partly because it was a great movie, but also because audiences had never seen an action movie like it before.


If you ask most Gents what they loved about the Bourne movies, they are going to talk about the fight scenes. This isn’t because they were the best fight scenes ever. It’s because those fight scenes seemed so realistic. The shaky camera work that made you feel like you were actually watching the fight happen in front of you helped. But so did the martial arts training the actors received and the extensive choreography of those fight scenes.

Remember Bourne defending himself with a pencil? Then gaining the advantage and using it to attack? Or falling down the well of a flight of stairs, expertly killing someone while falling, and then using the body below you as a landing pad? Or a stunt car chase through Paris in a Mr. Bean-Mini? It still seems astonishing now, two decades on.

Influence on Bond

Alfred Hitchcock made North by Northwest in 1959 and it famously influenced Dr. No, the first Bond movie. Ian Fleming’s source material was already there, but Hitchcock had provided a template for how the chases could be pulled off, how the femme fatales might look, and how the shadowy villains would play to audiences.

If you like the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, you can thank the Bourne series for its influences here as well. Prior to Casino Royale, the idea of Bond doing realistic fight scenes had long faded away since Sean Connery left the role, and the idea of his being emotionally vulnerable was gone (with some reason) after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Once you see the paths that Bourne paved, the way Casino Royale was conceived and shot, and the way that Craig’s Bond acted, makes a lot more sense.

Lost Identity

The movie starts with a fishing boat finding a man lost at sea. ¬†Bourne doesn’t know who he is, but throughout the course of the film he discovers reflexes and a “certain set of skills” that reveals what he is, if not yet who. Amnesia stories have played well with audiences before, but what makes the story even more compelling is that the audience doesn’t know where the trail is leading any more than Bourne does, which makes the payoff at the end of the trilogy even more powerful: (spoiler alert) Bourne did this to himself. The man who we feel was caught in a web of lies volunteered to enter that web on his own, giving even more context to the tragedy.

Government Corruption

Most don’t know that The Bourne Identity was originally scheduled to be released on September 7th, 2001. If it had, it would have, as many other movies that came out before and after the September 11th attacks, likely have tanked. Americans weren’t interested in a story in which the US government was the bad guy. It wasn’t savvy marketing that led to that delay, but creative struggles the director faced with the studio.

Director Doug Liman had been trying to get the film made for years ever since his breakout indie film Swingers. His father was chief counsel in the Iran-Contra hearings and interrogated Col. Oliver North. Liman would later acknowledge that Col. North was the inspiration for the movie’s villain Alexander Conklin. The film manages a critique of expansive secret government powers that were new in the early 2000s, even though they seem pretty standard now. The studio tried to tone down some of the evil tendencies of the villains, but Liman wasn’t having it.

So, in the summer of 2002, as the nation moved towards war and the first objections to such a path surfaced, themes in Liman’s final cut had more resonance. The so-called Patriot Act would pass later in 2002 and with its passage came a number of questions about how surveillance works in a society, and further pondering on shadowy figures with a lot of unsupervised, unaudited power.

Personal Game Change

Finally, for Matt Damon, the film changed everything. He went from playing dramatic characters in films like Good Will Hunting, Rounders, and Saving Private Ryan, to being the action hero of the 2000s. It was a career-defining role for him.

Twenty years later, it still is.

Image from IMDB.

41440cookie-checkFilms for the Gent: The Bourne Identity

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *