With Jason Bourne coming out July 29, it’s time to take a look back at the action franchise, see where it started, see how it evolved, and see where it wound up before Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass decided to return. Welcome to leg one of The Road to Jason Bourne.
The years between Good Will Hunting and The Bourne Identity were strange for Matt Damon. After the success of Good Will Hunting, Damon and his writing partner Ben Affleck had Hollywood open up at their feet. And while Damon followed up his breakout with great turns in Saving Private Ryan, Rounders, and Ocean’s Eleven, his stardom felt like it may have a ceiling.
Any time Damon tried to headline another movie – All the Pretty Horses or The Legend of Bagger Vance, for example – something felt forced about the drama. He was tremendous in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Rounders was admirable, but almost nobody saw those films. Damon seemed destined to live in the periphery of his buddies George Clooney and Brad Pitt, effectively playing the “third biggest star” in the Ocean’s franchise. But then, director Doug Liman came calling, and he had in his hands the future of Matt Damon.
The Bourne Identity is barely based on the Robert Ludlum novel (and the follow up films have virtually nothing to do with them). Liman asked screenwriter Tony Gilroy not to read the books, instead working from the director’s own outline. As for Damon’s involvement, like so many films he was not the first choice. Brad Pitt was originally approached, but passed on it to star opposite Robert Redford in Ridley Scott’s Spy Game. Russell Crowe, Sylvester Stallone (what!?) and Matthew McConaughey all passed. Thankfully. Eventually, it found its way to Matt Damon, and it changed his life forever.
Jason Bourne doesn’t even know he’s Jason Bourne for just about the entire first act of Liman’s terrific franchise starter. After he’s rescued adrift at sea, on death’s door, with bullets and a Swiss bank account number lodged in his body (who hasn’t been there?), Bourne can’t remember the details of his life. He can tie some sweet knots and speak different languages and he sure seems alert and physically powerful. But he doesn’t know his name, or where he’s from, or how the hell he wound up floating in the ocean with two slugs in his back.
As The Bourne Identity slowly reveals its titular character’s life to us, it also shows us Matt Damon is, in fact, a movie star. Not only is he able to handle the physicality of the story, his gradual revelations are key in the success of the story. The audience pretty much knows Jason Bourne is a government assassin, so the drama of figuring that out is left in the hands of Damon, who must gradually come to understand the moral weight of his career and bring the viewer along with him. This is not a film about an assassin getting his memory back as much as its about a former brainwashed CIA weapon reevaluating the consequences of his actions once his brain has been scrubbed and he can start over. It’s a tricky balance, and Damon handles it well.
Bourne’s intimate relationship with Marie (the great, underused Franka Potente) also manages to be incredibly fast for the sake of moviemaking momentum, yet never rings false. Marie is, much like Bourne, a person without any real ties. In her nomadic existence she find the perfect mate: a man who can’t remember his own life beyond two weeks ago. Damon and Potente sell their romance and eventual need of one another, all the while fending off other assassins and dogged police pursuit.
The rest of the supporting cast fills in the periphery of a complete action thriller. Brian Cox and Chris Cooper seethe bureaucratic corruption as hush hush CIA officials. And then there’s a young Clive Owen, playing a fellow Treadstone assassin whose confrontation with Bourne sheds a light on the bleak existence of these people. Liman’s direction is sure handed, because in 2002 we had no idea a filmmaker named Paul Greengrass would eventually take the reigns and completely reimagine the kinetics of the Bourne franchise to stunning results. Here, Liman’s calmer camera works to ease us into this world.
Matt Damon would never be the same after The Bourne Identity. In this film, he found out he could be a superstar about the same time he discovered he was a government assassin. And the audience would discover these things right alongside him.