The Bourne Identity is one of those movies that was so massively influential it gets taken for granted. On the eve of the franchise’s second attempt at rebooting, let’s look back at the movie that shifted action on its axis.
Going back to 2002, the most recent movie to revolutionize action was The Matrix, a very good movie to be sure, but full of hyper-stylized scenes like this-
The Matrix — and this scene in particular — gets a pass because it’s so well-constructed and it isn’t set in the real world anyway, but problems were beginning to emerge in the action genre. Most everything that was coming out was just as cheesy and ridiculous. There was the big duel at the end of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999, which blew my mind in the moment just as much as any other 7 year old, but in retrospect was so heavily choreographed it doesn’t even look like they’re trying to kill each other-
Take this scene from the John Woo-directed Mission: Impossible II, a movie that was actually praised at the time for its fast-paced action scenes-
It’s OK, take a second and splash some cold water on your face.
These were the top-grossing worldwide movies of 1999 and 2000, respectively. The Matrix came out of nowhere to be no. 4 in 1999. Action was in a bad place, and as well as name recognition helped Star Wars and Mission: Impossible and word of mouth helped The Matrix to their spots, it was beginning to show at the box office. Out of 40 movies that made the top 10 worldwide box office lists from 1999 to 2002, Mission: Impossible II and The Matrix were really the only movies where action was the main draw. Star Wars has action scenes but was always more on the fantasy and nostalgia side, Pearl Harbor was much more a disaster movie than an action one and X-Men and Spider-Man were successful on the then-novelty of comic book movies.
The only other movies that featured action as the primary hook were the James Bond movies that came out during that time period, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, and nowhere else was action movies’ cheesy problem more apparent-
That was also the one with the invisible car, the gene therapy that made yellowface OK and the satellite that can shoot solar beams.
Die Another Day was the franchises’ 2002 release, and it made a ton of money because it was a James Bond movie, but left audiences largely dissatisfied. Critics said it was because the plot was dumb and the movie as a whole relied too heavily on CGI, but the context of those criticisms went unspoken — the real reason Die Another Day seemed so lackluster is because just a few months before, they’d all seen this-
The Bourne Identity was a major shock to the system with its kinetic camerawork and choreography focused heavily on practicality over style, grounded in Filipino Kali and the Bruce Lee-championed Jeet Kune Do. There’s much more grappling and mid-range fighting in this — Bourne must have thrown more elbows in just that clip than anyone threw in the rest of them combined. In addition to its action shift, The Bourne Identity also represented a shift in the nature of an action hero. Where Ethan Hunt and James Bond were top government operatives, Jason Bourne was an ex-patriot, formerly a prized CIA asset but someone who they had wronged to the point of a psychological breakdown. The series featured several other agents who suffered similarly. In a post-9/11 world that was already distrustful of its government, this change would also become ubiquitous.
Identity didn’t do badly, but also didn’t light the world on fire — it was no. 21 and 20 on the domestic and worldwide charts, respectively. But its influence was felt artistically. Everything else seemed inadequate. Three years later we had a new Batman, and he was literally admonished for having too fancy of a fighting style within the first few minutes-
Batman Begins went with the brutal close-quarters Keysi fighting method from there on, and that movie did light the world on fire.
But the Bourne series crowning achievement is what it did to Bond, the king of action movies. After dissatisfaction with Die Another Day and a sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, reinforcing the idea that people wanted more grounded martial arts in movies, the Bond franchise readjusted with Casino Royale. Like Bourne, it featured a superspy who wrestled with the morality of killing, and like Batman, it started with a violent statement that its action would not be like it was before-
The music gets pretty lame, but even the more recent Mission: Impossible movies had to adapt in the same ways-
There were a lot of good movies that came out during this time period, but problems with the paradigm emerged quickly. Short story, Hollywood took the wrong message from it all and thought what people liked about these action scenes was the janky camera movement, which can add to a scene as long as it doesn’t escalate to the point that it takes away from it. So, on the idea that more is always better, directors started escalating to exactly that point. Take this scene from the next Bond film-
Or this scene from Green Zone, Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass’ 2010 collaboration with star Matt Damon-
These aren’t bad movies or even bad scenes, but they actively obstruct the viewer from following them. Green Zone’s frequent decisions to capture shots of just guys running in straight line with the roflcopter no-scope camera move stands out in a bad way. The Bourne series has kind of been reduced to a joke about this, and it’s easy to see why.
The Bourne Identity did two things with its action scenes — it painstakingly grounded them in a realistic fighting method and shot them in a deliberately confusing manner. Hollywood went the easier rout with most movies and just told the cameramen to go nuts, but impressive work is being done on the other end of the spectrum, and just as Bourne made the kitschy special-effects driven stuff look outdated, the shaken-and-stirred scenes are beginning to look obsolete as well. High-quality action that asks cameras to frame how good it looks instead of distract viewers from how bad it looks is making a comeback, be it because of dedicated showrunners allowing for intense choreography-
Or directors who eschew actors for some of the finest martial artists in the world and just let them play-