The Matt Damon BOURNE IDENTITY was not your father’s spy movie. But maybe the three hour 1988 TV mini-series with Richard Chamberlain is. I don’t know – am I your father? I thought it was pretty good.
Like the later one (and the Robert Ludlum book, I’m guessing) it opens on a boat, where Chamberlain (KING SOLOMON’S MINES) gets shot and falls overboard. He sinks to the bottom but manages to wake up and swim to the surface, later washing ashore in a small village in France.
You know how they do those experiments sometimes where they have somebody lay on the street and pretend to be unconscious, and supposedly everybody walks past them and doesn’t try to make sure they’re okay? Not true of this crab:
He’s like, “Hey mister, are you okay?” but he doesn’t answer. Eventually two unknown human individuals carry him and dump him on the doorstep of Washburn, a lovable doctor-who-lost-his-license-due-to-alcoholism played by Denholm Elliott. He unlicensed-doctors him back to health.
When he wakes up he has no idea who he is. The doc is surprised by his American accent. He notices some other things, too: lots of scars that have been treated better than if they’d happened in war, signs of plastic surgery, a small implant engraved with the number of a bank account in Zurich. You know, nothing big. Also, when they go outside some guys recognize him and run away. He chases them to try to find out what they know about him, and when a knife comes out his instincts kick in and he kicks both their asses.
Meanwhile, the TV news is all aflutter about a terrorist named Carlos who just assassinated an ambassador and got away. I mean, this doctor should be scared shitless! But he likes this John Doe, so he gives him some cash and arranges a ride for him.
One thing that’s kinda funny: at one point Washburn makes a defensive comment about not being a brain surgeon, implying that he could’ve caused the amnesia taking the bullet out but you can’t blame him because he’s not a pro. Maybe all this could’ve been avoided if he’d been brought to a real medical facility and not just some dude’s house.
Anyway, he has to pretend to know who he is and what he’s doing. Whenever somebody seems to know him he tries to question them or get them to say something that would help. It’s at the bank that he sees his name is J. Bourne. At the hotel (where a concierge knows him and his usual preferences) he meets Marie (Jaclyn Smith, Charlie’s Angels), a “beautiful Canadian economist” as he later calls her. Well, “meets” is too generous. He takes her hostage.
This, I think, is the first big change they made in the modern version. I believe Damon’s Bourne paid Franka Potente’s Marie to drive him. It’s a smart way to make him more sympathetic, but I like this meaner version because you don’t know how far he’s gonna go. We have reason to believe that he’s actually this terrorist Carlos, even if he doesn’t know it. He may not be trustworthy. And that’s part of the hook of this amnesia gimmick. It’s not only that he’s in danger and doesn’t understand the context, it’s also that he could very well be a horrible terrorist murderer guy. Not a fun thought to wake up with.
Only after she escapes him and runs into the old trenchcoat ‘n silencer crowd chasing him, who claim to be police, does she start to see what’s going on. They get the information out of her, then seem like they’re going to kill her. Bourne could get away, but he comes back to save her (from rape!), so (against his advice) she stays with him to help him using her connections and understanding of banking. It’s a tenuous relationship though. I mean yeah, they have a long romantic slow motion underwear sex scene with violin music, but when she sees all the killing he’s connected to she tries to get out.
I have to say, watching this reminded me of how good the story of THE BOURNE IDENTITY is. Even having enjoyed the 2003 version I was wrapped up in how this amnesiac mystery would unfold. When the first 90 minute episode ended I was surprised how not-different it was, storywise anyway, from how I remembered the new one. But I believe it gets drastically different in the second half. Eventually we learn that, if I understand correctly, (SPOILER) there was a different guy named Jason Bourne who was a killer following Carlos around trying to beat him to his targets and doing his own kills to try to compete. The Treadstone program killed the real Bourne and plastic surgeryed our guy to take his place so he could draw out Carlos.
After getting chased all around Europe, he finally draws out Carlos in the most unlikely and intimate setting: his childhood bedroom! As they fight, they’re wrecking photos and other remnants of a life he doesn’t remember. It sort of says that this innocent kid in the pictures doesn’t really exist anymore. Now he’s a killer. Now he’s Jason Bourne.
Though so much of the story is exactly the same, pretty much every single thing anybody associates with the modern BOURNE movies is not at all in this version. Of course the camera work is very classical and held using professional devices designed to photograph with steady precision and intent, close ups are used for specific reasons and the editing is calm and reasonable. There is exactly zero/no electronical dance music of any kind in this one, not even the one that is on the end credits of all the other BOURNEs. Instead there’s a good and ominous classical score by Laurence Rosenthal (ROOSTER COGBURN, CLASH OF THE TITANS, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), like you would do in an old fashioned thriller.
And I’m not sure but I think the boat at the beginning might be a model. Very few miniature models in the new BOURNE movies in my opinion.
The book was only eight years old at the time, and not in need of modernization or reinvention. So there is none of the stuff involving people in war rooms talking over devices and looking at 25 different monitors zooming in on security footage and using a satellite and saying a bunch of cool jargon to imply a note of caution within a fetishistic admiration for the modern surveillance state. Instead it’s old timey spycraft like MUNICH or BRIDGE OF SPIES.
In fact, the war room is replaced by an office with a secret book shelf door where a senator meets with a team of experts, including an adorable elderly British couple who you wouldn’t necessarily peg for leading counterterrorism experts based on their outward appearance.
Director Roger Young directed UNDER SIEGE and ROLLING THUNDER, by which I mean the 1986 TV movie and the two part Hardcastle and McCormick episode guest starring John Saxon, respectively. Young also did the 2005 version of HERCULES featuring in my opinion the #1 Hercules to ever post on outlawvern.com. The screenplay is by Carol Sobieski, who wrote HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, ANNIE, THE TOY and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, but was apparently not related to Leelee Sobieski, who was in the aforementioned HERCULES.
For two movies based on the same story, I think this and the 2002 film have an entirely different appeal. Damon, especially at the time of the first movie, had a regular dude sort of relatability. And I think some dudes love it partly because of the fantasy that they could have a secret life as a highly skilled super assassin who can jump from one window in a building to another window in a building, or use a paperback book as a deadly weapon. Chamberlain doesn’t have that feel at all, he has more of an unreachable handsomeness from the past. Not quite Arnold Schwarzenegger in TOTAL RECALL, where you might not be the same species as the guy. But you have a harder time seeing yourself hanging out with Chamberlain than Damon, in my opinion. So it’s not a new way of grounding the spy thriller, it’s just an actual spy thriller. But a solid one.
History: The original Robert Ludlum book was first in a trilogy. The series was extended after Ludlum’s death in ten (so far) additional novels by Eric Van Lustbader. The 2002 Doug Limon movie is followed by three Paul Greengrass-directed sequels and the spin-off THE BOURNE LEGACY. The original novel also inspired the 1989 Indian film VETRI VIZHA
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.