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Film critics are wrong: the first Bourne movie is the best of the franchise, by far

The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Identity, first and still best.
(Universal Pictures)

Okay, it’s confess-your-unpopular-opinion time. To the dismay of my Vox colleagues and most other people I’ve discussed the matter with, I maintain that the first Bourne movie — 2002’s The Bourne Identity, the one Paul Greengrass didn’t direct — is, despite its flaws, the best of the bunch.

All the subsequent Bourne movies have gone downhill — and that’s not even counting the lamentable Legacy with Jeremy Renner.

This weekend, I saw the latest installment, Jason Bourne. It is a joyless, derivative, hectic nothingburger. There isn’t a trope or story beat in the film that we haven’t seen multiple times in Greengrass’s first two installments. (Staring pensively in the mirror: check. Talking to someone on the phone while secretly watching them: check. Using a crowd to engineer a meet-up: check. Being stalked by a generic super-assassin: check. Finding a female ally on the inside: check. Over-the-top climactic car chase: check. And so on.)

Jason Bourne
Haven’t we seen this before?

The series never got better than Identity. I try to explain this unpopular opinion below, but if I had to sum up: The Jason Bourne of Identity was the anti-James Bond, a refreshing and compelling new take on the super-spy. But the franchise’s three subsequent movies, all of them directed by Greengrass, lost much of what made Bourne distinctive, rendering him a more dolorous, "gritty" version of Bond himself.

Identity presents Bourne as a human being first, a spy second

When we first meet Jason Bourne, he’s floating in the water. We know nothing about him and he knows nothing about himself. The first thing we (the audience and Bourne) learn about him is that he’s basically a decent human being. We see him help and befriend the fishermen who save him, and beyond that, Matt Damon lends him a real sense of confusion and vulnerability.

The character’s fundamental decency is a thread that runs throughout the story, especially in his tenderness toward his accidental female companion, Marie. It anchors the film emotionally.

Bourne falls in love with Marie; I fall in love with Franka Potente.

When Bourne gets off that boat, we already care about him. When his skills begin to manifest, the feeling isn’t, "Oh, look, the boring guy is secretly a badass." It’s, "Oh no, the decent guy is in for some awful shit."

Recall that immortal scene when he’s sleeping on a park bench and two Zurich policemen wake him. He responds in German, and his eyes briefly widen. Hey, he can speak German! Then one of them touches him and he lays them both out on the ground in under a second. Oh. He can do that too.

There’s something ugly and brutal in Bourne. Given the affection we feel for him by that point, it’s a little shocking. And he is shocked; he takes off running, horrified.

It’s that character journey — a sympathetic figure being pulled toward a violent fate he can’t escape — that makes Identity more than an action movie. Bourne wants to be good. And he’s finding out, piece by piece, that he is very, very bad. Damon played him so soulfully, too, with a quiet undercurrent of sorrow and yearning. ("How could I forget about you? You're the only person I know.")

Bourne’s spy skills are grounded in a way that distinguishes Identity from the rest of the spy genre

Another thing that sets Identity apart from dozens of other super-spy/super-assassin movies: Bourne’s skills and tactics are plausible in a way that’s unusual for the genre. We’re allowed to see how they work, and why. He notices and calculates in a way normal people don’t, but in a way they believably could, if trained.

There are three great examples, scenes I’ve remembered ever since the movie came out.

The first is the chase early on that ends up winding through the American embassy. It begins in the streets, when the cops spot Bourne. He makes it to the embassy, through it, out an upper-floor door, and down a wall, scot-free — all while barely ever breaking into a run. It is basically a walking chase scene. (!)

He escapes by grabbing a map off the wall and studying it to find the best escape route. That study-a-map-first trope has been reused a dozen times in the Greengrass movies, to the point that it has lost all its impact, but that first time, it was intensely compelling. Instead of just gawking at a hero’s exploits, we got to watch him think and plan his way out of danger.

The second example is the scene in the diner with Marie, particularly this bit of dialogue, in which he explains just how much he is noticing and taking in at all times:

It’s a great character moment. But also, while it is indeed badass to actually notice all those things, they are things one can imagine noticing. They show why Bourne would be well-equipped if violence broke out in the diner — not because he’s super-human, but because he’s disciplined and perceptive.

The third example comes later in the movie, when Bourne is holed up at a country estate with Marie and her brother and his family. It’s morning and they’re meeting in the kitchen for breakfast. The kids are complaining that they can’t find the family dog. Bourne asks if it happens a lot; the brother says no. And that’s it. Bourne says, "get your family in the basement."

Then, while Marie flips out and starts to panic, Bourne calmly begins assessing available supplies. He finds some shotgun shells in a drawer. His gaze sweeps the floor. Toys. A gun will be kept up high. But where? His gaze sweeps the top of the room. There. On top of the cabinet. Sure enough, he feels around and finds the old shotgun.

It’s just a second or two of footage, but it reveals so much. We are seeing him think and improvise in real time. We are seeing why he wins.

Identity was such a break from the James Bond/Mission Impossible model, wherein action scenes are 20-minute set pieces relying on long strings of absurd coincidences, wild luck, and explosions. In hand-to-hand combat, Bourne didn’t take big theatrical swings. He tried to disable his opponents, with whatever was handy (like a ballpoint pen), the way a guy trying to disable his opponents would. Even the distinctive walk Damon developed for the part was the opposite of Bond’s swagger. He plodded, purposefully, like a boxer.

The later Bourne films, for all their visual flair, are much more conventional

Of course, it was the very aspects of Identity that I liked — the focus on character, the short, cerebral action scenes instead of long, loud, explosive ones — that movie executives didn’t care for, and battled with director Doug Liman over.

"Every time I had to make a decision, my inclination was against making a traditional action movie," Liman once told Variety. "I wanted to make an art film the studio could sell as an action movie with trailer moments to trick the audience. They had no idea what to make of this. "

Ultimately, despite all the chaos behind the scenes, Liman made the movie he wanted: a thinky, character-driven film with action scenes, what The Ringer’s Chris Ryan memorably describes as "Before Sunrise with hand-to-hand combat."

Identity was not without its flaws, of course. Everything that involved CIA headquarters was ludicrous (a flaw that plagues the sequels and many other action movies as well). As the CIA boss guy, Conklin, poor Chris Cooper was stuck barking obvious orders at lackeys on computers for two hours. "Stay on him, people!" "Oh, you want us to track the bad guy? Thanks for the tip, boss!" That same role has humbled similarly over-qualified actors in every Bourne sequel — Brian Cox, David Strathairn, and in the latest, Tommy Lee Jones.

chris cooper
Chris Cooper in The Bourne Identity, playing the role of Useless Order Barker.

Still, if Identity retained stray elements of the generic spy thriller, its spy was new. That’s what slowly got lost when Greengrass took over. The action got pumped up, with the frenetic shaky-cam style. The car chases got longer and more outlandish. There’s no denying that Greengrass is a better director of action than Liman (or just about anyone).

But as Bourne’s feats became more and more elaborate and super-human, the depth and complexity of the character faded. After Marie died, Bourne became one-dimensionally stolid, the Tortured Tough Guy, staring pensively into the mirror before kicking more ass.

The plot, so fresh when it was first introduced, started to seem like a wind-up toy being wound up again and again for no particular purpose. Now Bourne needs to know about the secret program behind the secret program, being run by the bad guy behind the bad guy, because … why again?

As Jason Bourne demonstrates, the sense of discovery and invention is long gone. It’s all become tedious. Here comes the fleet of SUVs tearing down the narrow streets. They’re "two minutes out." I wonder if Bourne will outsmart them and get away? Zzz…

Greengrass’s Bourne films are superb exemplars of the conventional action movie, with an unusually rich character at the center. But The Bourne Identity was not a conventional action movie. It tried to be something new: a character drama with action, rather than vice versa. That’s why it remains the best entry in a franchise that’s grown increasingly stale.

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