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Should I Watch..? 'The Bourne Identity' (2002)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

"The Bourne Identity."

"The Bourne Identity."

What's the Big Deal?

The Bourne Identity is an action spy thriller film released in 2002 and is an adaptation of the novel by Robert Ludlum. It would be the first in a series of films featuring the character of Jason Bourne, an amnesiac secret agent attempting to discover his past whilst avoiding many attempts on his life by his former CIA bosses. The film differs greatly from the book which had a Cold War setting to it - director Doug Liman updates the novel for a post 9/11 world, despite the film originally due for release before the September 11th attacks. After being pushed back, the film was dramatically re-edited and released to critical acclaim and commercial success after taking more than $210 million globally. It also inspired the owners of the Bond franchise to reboot their series and ground it more in reality, leading to the release of Casino Royale with Daniel Craig in 2006.


What's It About?

Somewhere in the Mediterranean, a small fishing boat encounters an unconscious individual floating in the water with gunshot wounds to his back. Pulling him on board, the ship doctor manages to save his life but discovers that the man is American and has no memory of who he is. However, he displays extraordinary aptitude in other areas such as martial arts and understanding and speaking several languages. The man also has a strange device implanted in his hip which displays an account number of a deposit box in Zurich.

After returning to port, the man sets off to investigate the deposit box. There, he discovers a number of passports which all have his photo but with different names and addresses. He picks up one labeled "Jason Bourne" and decides to investigate Bourne's Parisian address. But before he can do so, he finds himself sought by police and other military forces. Realizing he's in danger, he coerces a local woman named Marie into helping him, and together, they head off to Paris, unaware that their every move is being followed by Bourne's former employees in the US...


What's to like?

Until Craig began wearing 007's tuxedo, the Bond films had become parodies of themselves with ridiculous gimmicks, outlandish storylines, and an obscene amount of noisy explosive action that most spies would prefer to avoid. Then along comes Matt Damon and suddenly, the game changed completely. Bourne was a wounded creature, searching for answers and completely unaware of the dangers surrounding him. He feels like one of us, which makes his action sequences even more thrilling. The movie places us right in the heart of the story, only leaving enough clues to fill in a little of the politics Stateside but never enough to give the whole game away. It didn't only force the Bond producers to up their game - this film's influence can be seen in other movies like Taken and Michael Mann's underrated thriller Collateral.

So the action is very good indeed, from brutal fisticuffs with anonymous assassins to a gripping car chase through Paris that owes a debt of gratitude to under-rated thriller Ronin. As the hapless couple in the midst of a mystery, Damon and Potente are fabulous and display rare chemistry that subsequent sequels failed utterly to utilize. The always excellent Cooper and Cox also excel as the increasingly desperate diplomats eager for past mistakes to remain buried. The script might take several liberties with the sourcebook but it is a reverent updating, maintaining the gripping plot from the book and blending it with first-rate performances, blistering action, and a pulsating soundtrack that elevates the tension even further. Paul Oakenfold's Ready, Steady, Go has been used in several movies but never better than here.

Matt Damon takes aim at 007's aging reputation in "The Bourne Identity."

Matt Damon takes aim at 007's aging reputation in "The Bourne Identity."

Fun Facts

  • Although he died before the film was released, author and creator Robert Ludlum is credited as a co-producer on the movie.
  • This is actually the second adaptation of Ludlum's novel. A 1988 TV mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain as Bourne followed the source material much more closely than this movie adaptation does.
  • Despite prominent billing, Clive Owen only appears in about three minutes of the film at various points. His name is never revealed and he only speaks in his final scene. Owen described his part as putting on glasses and posing for the camera.

What's not to like?

Ludlum purists might find themselves as at sea as Bourne does during the film which retains maybe about 10% of the source novel. The rest is a near-perfect blend of action and dialogue. And here's the thing: I'd never read a Robert Ludlum book before I first saw The Bourne Identity but afterward, I immediately sought out a copy of the novel and read it cover to cover. Naturally, the diverging stories confused me at first (certainly, the sequels have no correlation with their source novels) but without the film, I'd never have picked up the book in the first place. It is, for the record, a damn good read.

As for the film, I took some exception to the character of The Professor: the silent super-assassin played by one-time Bond candidate Clive Owen. We know nothing about him besides his ruthless efficiency and for me, he felt a little stereotypical for action movies of this nature. In fact, the movie itself does lack a definite conclusion of sorts and still leaves plenty of unanswered questions which means that you'll almost certainly need to watch the others. And sadly, they aren't quite as good.

Damon and Potente have real chemistry together on screen.

Damon and Potente have real chemistry together on screen.

Should I Watch?

Like Batman Begins, The Bourne Identity has become so influential to film-makers within the genre that it's amazing this style of action wasn't adopted sooner. There is no CG involved, no megalomaniac baddies with underground lairs, and no cars loaded with machine guns behind the headlights. It's one man in over his head against an invisible enemy, using nothing but instinct and his skills to survive. It feels like a proper spy film, the way early Bond films used to, but more exciting somehow. The Bourne Identity was one of the best movies of 2002 and remains an exceptionally good film today.

Great For: action lovers, spy fans, Matt Damon's career.

Not So Great For: nervous Americans in Europe, Pierce Brosnan's tenure as 007.

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What else should I watch?

Neither The Bourne Supremacy nor The Bourne Ultimatum would reach the same heights as this first film, although they remain decent spy films in their own right. As for The Bourne Legacy, it provides a decent enough action thriller but it never escapes from the fact that neither Matt Damon nor the director of the next two Bourne movies Paul Greengrass failed to report in for duty. As such, you're left wondering what the point of it all actually was. They both returned for Jason Bourne but critics felt that this more action-orientated entry was a little labored.

It's fascinating to see how Bond changed after this film was released, from the hideously creaky Die Another Day to arguably one of the best the franchise had seen with Casino Royale, which is modern and compelling from start to finish, and thankfully, short of stupid gimmicks. The trend continued with Skyfall and should hopefully ensure the survival of 007 for the foreseeable future. And it's all due to Matt Damon, Franka Potente, and a funky red Mini Cooper...

Main Cast


Matt Damon

Jason Bourne

Franka Potente

Marie Kreutz

Chris Cooper

Alexander Conklin

Brian Cox

Wade Abbott

Clive Owen

The Professor

Julia Stiles

Nicolette "Nicky" Parsons

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

Nykwana Wombosi

Technical Info

* based on the novel by Robert Ludlum

DirectorDoug Liman


Tony Gilroy & William Blake Herron *

Running Time

119 minutes

Release Date (UK)

6th September, 2002




Action, Spy, Thriller

© 2015 Benjamin Cox

Soap Box

Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on August 04, 2015:

Mine too but part of me can't be bothered with "Bourne Legacy" so it wins by default.

Seth Tomko from Macon, GA on August 02, 2015:

Pretty good review. Bourne Identity remains my favorite of the franchise so far.

Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on August 01, 2015:

I still maintain that "The Bourne Identity" owes some acknowledgement to "Ronin" for the Parisian car chase but looking at movies these day, Bourne's big-screen debut has influenced many others in its wake.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on August 01, 2015:

This was a great start to a great film trilogy.

Sandeep Rathore from New Delhi on July 31, 2015:

Good review. I liked this movie. Thanks

CJ Kelly from the PNW on July 31, 2015:

Probably the perfect action movie. Great review. What you point out and so many people miss is the significance of this movie in changing the Bond franchise. These movies were game changers. Voted up and shared.

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