Jason Bourne: Who am I?
Conklin: You’re U.S. Government property. You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon.
I may be bending the rules a little here, but The Bourne Identity either isn’t a martial arts movie at all or its one of the best martial arts movies of all time.
Either way, The Bourne Identity changed how action movies are made.
Action movies go through cycles. Someone makes a movie that defies expectations and then everyone copies it.
One cycle started with the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando. This film brought the harsh comedy and crazy action of 1970s pulp novel series like The Executioner and The Destroyer to the big screen; the villains were cardboard thin and the henchmen were numerous and easy to kill. The hero did crazy stunts like hitching a ride on a plane by climbing in through the landing gear. It was over over-the-top.
After questioning a bad guy while holding him over a cliff by his ankle, Arnold drops him. A few minutes later he rejoins the girl..
Girl: What happened to him?
Arnold: (monotone) I let him go.
Die Hard (1988) added a little vulnerability to the hero and toned down the the gallow’s humor. He still tossed off a snarky comment after he killed a guy but there was a little more humanity overall.
Innovation always meets with resistance. By 2002, we had been getting some variation on Die Hard (or actual sequels) for over ten years. Speed (Die Hard on a Bus). Under Siege (Die Hard on a Boat). Speed 2 (Die Hard on a Cruise Ship). It was done to death.
The book The Bourne Identity was written in 1980 by Robert Ludlum. It opens with fishermen hauling a wounded man out of the Mediterranean sea, as in the 2002 film, but quickly diverges on an entirely different plot involving real-life terrorist assassin Carlos “the Jackal” Ramirez.
There was a 1988 TV movie with Richard Chamberlain, but it was very mild and focused on the dramatic elements of the story.
The Bourne Identity (2002) came from an unlikely source. The director had previously only done a couple of (excellent) comedies: Swingers and Go. The star he settled on, Matt Damon, was mainly known dramas like Good Will Hunting and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but he hadn’t had a hit in over three years.
Together they remade the modern action film. I attribute its massive success to one thing: near realism, across the board.
This is why no one has made a film to match it. Even its own sequels got caught up in the need to out-do the first film. We are back in a cycle of bigger action sequences and more bodies and crazier fight scenes.
With one exception (when Bourne falls four stories down a stairwell, shooting all the way, and walks it off), the film is only slightly exaggerated from the possible. I know guys who can fight like that, if they had a lucky streak and didn’t accidentally get shot. I have seen car chases on reality TV that are nearly as crazy as the one in Paris. Treadstone is actually mild compared to stuff like the U.S. government;s COINTELPRO program, that really happened.
The key is the groundwork. Matt Damon and Franka Potente (who was primarily known for her performance in the excellent German experimental thriller Run Lola Run) are both very good actors. The script spent time making us care about these people, so when they were threatened, it affected us.
“You might consider casting Franka as Marie a bit of a gamble,” acknowledged executive producer Frank Marshall, “because American audiences have not seen much of her. But she has tremendous charisma and energy. Marie is a strong character, very much her own person, not an appendage to the action hero. Like Matt, Franka can do the ‘action thing,’ but she can also expertly handle the dramatic side. So when you put these two actors into the shoes of Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz, you have an unusual combination in what’s an unconventional, even existential, action movie.”
Doug Liman had inside information on how secret govermnet agency’s operated – his Dad worked for the National Security Agency. He is said to have based Alexander Conklin’s character his father’s accounts of Oliver North.
And finally, we have the fight choreography by Nicholas Powell (winner of the American Choreography Award for Outstanding Achievement for Fight Choreography). I think the fight between Bourne and the assassin in Paris (with the pen: see below) is one of the best movie fights ever.
“It’s very quick, three or four move blocking, trapping, destruction techniques,” explained Nick Powell. “You don’t see it on film very often, which was exactly its appeal to Doug. Since Jason Bourne is trained as a killing machine, the director wanted him to master a lethal fighting technique different from anything audiences have seen before.”
Everything is just a little heightened, so we can buy it. They have Bourne constantly improvising (a la Jackie Chan, always using the room and its contents in the fight). The fighting (like real fighting) is close and quick and furious. These people fight in a grim business-like fashion, lethal athletes whose job is to kill.
This is the one of my nominee’s for top ten fight scene’s of all time: