I don’t know if I can call Matt Damon’s Bourne movies the best action franchise that’s come along thus far this century. After all, the original Fast and the Furious came out in 2001, a year before The Bourne Identity, and the idea of picking between Fast and Bourne is the kind of thing that makes my head throb. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker never beat up an elite assassin with a rolled-up magazine, but Matt Damon never jumped a car from one glass tower in Dubai into another glass tower in Dubai. Call it a wash. But if Bourne isn’t the best, necessarily, it’s one of the best. And while all of the Bourne movies are great, my favorite, most days, is The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman’s brisk and efficient original.
Picking a single Bourne movie isn’t easy. People tend to talk up the second and third movies, the one that nerve-jangling Englishman Paul Greengrass made when he took over for Liman. The Greengrass movies were important; they defined the shaky handheld cinematography and blurry quick-cut editing that every other action filmmaker would rip off for the next eight years. In the hands of Greengrass, this stuff injected some of the uncertainty of actual violence, quickening your pulse and giving you some sense of what it must be like to be there. I know I shouldn’t blame the Greengrass Bourne movies for the incoherent action scenes in movies like Quantum of Solace or The Expendables, but I do. I absolutely do.
Doug Liman used handheld cameras in The Bourne Identity, too, but he didn’t lean on them the way Greengrass did. In the Bourne Identity fights, you can generally tell which character is which and what, exactly, is going on. That’s a good thing. When Damon, say, beats up two cops in a Swiss park without quite realizing what he’s doing, making this incredible holy-shit face when he sees them both sprawled on the ground after, we’re right there in the moment with him. We know what just happened; we just don’t know why.
There’s a great ‘90s-hangover datedness of that first Bourne movie, too. It’s not overwhelming in the way that extended Ja Rule cameo in the first Fast movie was. Just like every Bourne movie that would follow, the first one has plenty of great, grizzled character actors, like Brian Cox and Chris Cooper (as Conklin, the head of a CIA black operation program). But it also has Franka Potente (as Marie) just after Run Lola Run, Julia Stiles just after Save the Last Dance, an ice-blooded and near-silent Clive Owen just after Gosford Park, and the great Walton Goggins (in a totally anonymous computer-jockey role) around the same time The Shield started. Damon himself is shockingly young, still skinny and hungry for big roles. You have lots of flip-phones and chunky desktop computers and Propellerheads-esque techno on the soundtrack. All that nostalgia is a lot of fun.
This was Liman’s first big studio movie after his indie hits, Swingers and Go, and it was the first time anyone had thought to try to make Damon an action star. Apparently, the filming process was bumpy. The studio kept ordering script rewrites and reshoots. And given all the interference and moving parts, it’s frankly amazing that the movie holds together at all. But the pieces fit. (Okay, sure, when the amnesiac Bourne finally figures out why he shot-up and floating in a place where that Greek fishing boat could pick him up, maybe it gets a touch clumsy.) There’s something deeply satisfying about the ending, with Bourne finally outwitting dickhead bureaucrat Cooper and escaping to the Mediterranean in time for Moby’s “Extreme Ways” to play over the end credits. (I really didn’t like “Extreme Ways” when it came out. Now, it’s probably my favorite Moby song, if only because it triggers that Pavlovian “Bourne got away again!” rush.)
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a studio head watching this movie and not being ecstatic about it. The thing moves at such a confident, absorbing pace that it’s impossible to just rewatch a scene or two when it comes on cable. You can’t look away. Damon is absolutely winning as a human weapon with no idea what to do with himself, and the give-and-take between him and the covert CIA types chasing him is just beautifully executed. The fight scenes are about as good as fight scenes between non-martial-artist actors can be; the pen stabbing sequence in a Paris apartment is a particular highlight. And for its lack of pyrotechnics, the movie still squeezes in a few obvious and crowd-pleasing tricks, like sending a Mini Cooper crashing through a pane of glass during a Paris car chase.
Still, some of my favorite scenes in the movie aren’t the action scenes. I love when Bourne sits across from Marie in a diner, and explains that he knows all the different ways to get out of there or find a gun but that he doesn’t know why he knows that stuff. Bourne needs help. And when Bourne and Marie finally hook up, it doesn’t feel like the obligatory romantic subplot, but rather a driving force of the movie. Their romance is the reason Marie didn’t escape and find police, even after he gave her multiple chances.
In a weird way, the shadowy government-conspiracy elements of the plot made Bourne the ideal action movie for its historical moment. The producers can’t have intended it to happen this way, but The Bourne Identity came out just as America was ramping up for a war in Iraq, at a moment when it felt increasingly obvious that the people in charge of protecting us were pursuing their own arcane grudges and trying to cover their own asses. The grumbling, brow-furrowing bureaucrats in Bourne aren’t concerned with preventing terrorist attacks. They’re worried about optics, about games of influence. Bourne himself was a hero because he had no agenda beyond escaping and surviving.
They’re making another Bourne movie now, with Damon coming back into the role. And maybe he’s just doing it because Damon’s tossed up a few too many box-office bricks and he needs a surefire hit (though he got that with The Martian, anyway). But I can’t wait. Damon hasn’t made a less-than-great Bourne movie yet, and it’s not like our government has stopped doing mysterious, shady shit since the last one.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.