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Bourne Identity at 20: Why the Film Will Always Be an Action Classic

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Twenty years ago, in the summer of 2002, The Bourne Identity forever changed what we would come to expect of action franchises. Directed by Doug Liman of Mr. & Mrs. Smith fame, the film famously follows an amnesic man caught amid a CIA conspiracy. While “Jason Bourne” attempts to put together the fragmented pieces of his identity, somebody else wants him dead – desperately.

Based on the eponymous Robert Ludlum novel, The Bourne Identity was far ahead of its time in its ability to combine elements of a fast-paced action thriller with intense psychological drama. The film was initially not so easy to get off the ground, though; after an unsuccessful TV movie was made from Ludlum’s work in 1988, Warner decided to shelve any further plans with the project for years. Liman had to fight arduously for the rights to the book, finally acquiring them in 1996, near the end of the production of his film Swingers.

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Bourne was received positively by critics, who commended its smart approach to a somewhat hackneyed genre. There were some dissenters, though, who found the film unnecessary. Regardless, the Bourne franchise today remains something of a monolith. After Identity, four other sequels have been made under various directors, even (in the case of The Bourne Legacy) trading Matt Damon as the lead. The franchise has now made over $1.5 billion at the box office.

Despite many having voiced their preference for the sequels to the original, The Bourne Identity is still the film that started it all. It’s hard to underestimate The Bourne Identity’s momentous impact on both film culture and action franchises at large.

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Who is Jason Bourne? More importantly, could he beat James Bond in a round of hand-to-hand combat? Many action movies can only afford to ask us one question or the other. The Bourne Identity prompts us to consider both, and in doing so crafts far more than just your run-of-the-mill action hero. Despite his superhuman abilities, Jason Bourne is still human at his core, just like us. His motives are not to single-handedly defeat terrorists, or stop a bomb from exploding, or court the most beautiful woman in the world – they are simply to find out who he is.

The Bourne Identity seamlessly creates not just an action character, but a human character, by not being afraid to show us Bourne’s vulnerabilities and fears. The film opens with Bourne lost at sea, barely alive, with two gunshot wounds in his back. When Bourne tries to choke one of the ship’s doctors, we see the gesture not as brute showing-off, but rather an act of pure, unadulterated panic. Bourne’s vulnerability also translates to his relationship with Marie, the German woman who helps him throughout the film. Bourne is indebted to and dependent on Marie; as opposed to vice versa – she could be nothing further from an appendage of Bourne’s machismo, like many women in action franchises turn out to be.

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