The Bourne Identity: The Best Action Flick There Is

by Mr. Sheehy

This is my example for the best movie ever essay my sophomores are working on. I have invited them to argue what they think is the best, but clearly I’m a biased reader. I posted this essay as a Google Doc with comments pointing out to students what I was doing.

In a dark theater, in an intense moment of  The Bourne Identity, my mother-in-law clutched her popcorn in a death grip. A man was sneaking behind the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, and it was not clear whether Bourne was aware of his presence. Unable to watch him die, my mother-in-law broke down the fourth wall and called to Jason: “Watch out behind you!” The moment created one of the great memories of our family’s history added one more anecdote proving that The Bourne Identity is the greatest action movie ever made.

Part of what makes The Bourne Identity so  good is the way it is full of regular people doing amazing things. While Matt Damon has immortalized the role, Brad Pitt was actually offered it first but turned it down because he was busy with other films  (“Bourne Identity Trivia”). This was good for the film because Pitt, while a great actor, would not have brought the same Everyman sense that Damon brings to a role. With Damon, viewers are able to believe (for a couple hours anyway) he is a normal guy who is surprised to discover he’s a trained assassin. But the sense of regular people carries into the other characters.  Critic David Edelstein argues that Marie, the innocent bystander who gets wrapped into Bourne’s adventures, “seems to be having the time of her life,” which is precisely what the viewer is doing even as they imagine themselves in her place. It is the juxtaposition of these normal-seeming people with extraordinary situations that creates excitement a viewer can imagine being a part of.

Yet while the everydayness of the characters adds a sense of believability, one could definitely argue that Bourne’s amnesia, which continues throughout the film, is hardly realistic. Bourne doesn’t know who he is but he knows everything he’s ever learned about being a modern spy and soldier. Would a person’s memory really work like that? This is part of what critic J. Hoberman is getting at when he describes t he “general superfluity” of the film. But while this rejection of the amnesia’s premise has validity , it does not necessarily follow that the amnesia ruins the film. With the height of the excitement in The Bourne Identity, who cares whether there are any cited cases of this kind of amnesia? Viewers are given the key quandary with an immediate  inciting moment, as wonder with Bourne himself why he is floating on the sea with bullets in his back. From there the movie never relents, piling mysterious complication upon mysterious complication, withholding the climax until the last moments of the movie. With such nonstop intensity, critic David Edelstein claims, “it doesn’t give you time to reflect on the inanit y . . . of its premise.” It moves so fast, in fact, that viewers are likely to miss even fundamental mistakes. In the opening scene, when the fisherman cuts open Bourne’s wetsuit to reveal his bullet wounds, Bourne is wearing only the wetsuit (as is normal). Yet for the first half of the film following the boat-scene, Bourne wears a sweater with b ullet holes in the back–a preposterous situation since he was not wearing the sweater when he was shot (“Bourne Identity Goofs”). Does a viewer mind such things? No, because the pace of film’s action is so quick few of them will even notice such basic mistakes.

Not that the film is full of such mistakes; in fact, the film’s flawless and creative chase scenes are what sets it so far apart from other action movies. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Jason Bourne escapes from the United States embassy in Switzerland. The  paradox of a man escaping from such a highly secure building (dozens of Marines are sprinting to catch him the entire time), single-handedly and without running or looking stressed, creates a thrill. And the directors have made sure nothing interferes with the thrill. For example, to ease the feelings of any conflicted viewers who would not want to see innocent American soldiers or security guards harmed, Bourne never kills any of them, only knocking them cold and leaving them behind. Thus, part of what works in this film is it “summons up a thriller era when the only people who ever seemed to die were spies, counterspies, and the odd, overweening dictato r” (Edelstein). In fact, by the time the movie ends,  only eight people die (“Bourne Identity Trivia”), showing blood and gore is not the essential ingredient to a great action film.

W ith such creative action occuring at such an intense pace to seemingly regular people, The Bourne Identity succeeds as no other action movie has. My m other-in-law might have enjoyed worrying over Jason Bourne’s safety, but she need not have. His spot as the ultimate action hero is still secure.