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(Credit: Universal)


How 'The Bourne Identity' changed action cinema: 20 years on


It’s often difficult to find a welcoming audience for rhetoric on the artistic merit of action movies. The genre has been so widely plagued by mediocrity that it can be easy to sweep all of the epic titles under its umbrella into the gutter. However, one film would change what we think of the genre at large, the quite brilliant Matt Damon flick, The Bourne Identity.

Like all genre films, action cinema goes through a constant shift and cycle as tastes change and styles ebb and flow. Where, in the 1980s, a star-studded male lead would take the helm in a variety of bombastic scenarios, from Die Hard to The Terminator, the 1990s shifted from a focus on an individual star, pumping money instead into an outlandish central plot. Just look at the Batman series during the 1990s, with Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin both showing off colourful, cartoony styles to service their eccentric plotlines. Though come the turn of the millennium, these films would quickly look dated and part of a more innocent time for cinema before the rise of the internet, in its place would grow a far grittier approach to action filmmaking.

Such is well demonstrated by the first of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with Batman Begins in 2005, stripping the once wacky and inane identity of ‘the caped crusader’ to something far more grounded. Though, this vision may never have come to life if it wasn’t for the groundbreaking action of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, marking a significant evolution for the genre in 2002. 

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The film’s story is ripped from the playbook of action filmmaking, following a man discovered by a fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea, riddled with bullets and suffering from amnesia, who is forced to evade multiple assassinations whilst regaining recollection of his past. Based on the book by Robert Ludlum, Liman’s film, starring Matt Damon in the lead role, established a stark vision for the future of action set-pieces, capturing hand-to-hand combat with snappy, frenetic energy. 

Where action scenes were once captured in wide-angle with most of the body in the frame to improve the clarity of the moment, in The Bourne Identity, they are choppy, swift and nimble thanks to unstable, close up cinematography and a rapidly cut edit. This style certainly heightened as the trilogy continued, escalating when director Paul Greengrass took over on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, with the final film in the trilogy recording around 3200 shots in its 105-minute runtime. That’s around a cut every two seconds. Greengrass’ approach to action was to recreate its violent experience rather than create a coherent observation of the proceedings. 

The Bourne Identity lays the foundation for such a style to flourish later in the trilogy, creating an intensity marked by the chaos that works well to reflect the blurred experience of protagonist Jason Bourne. By replicating this authenticity, recording each impactful blow with close-up camera work a coinciding rattle of fist-on-bone, Liman’s fight scenes resonate with the audience, registering as powerful blows instead of fake hollow punches. These small technical aspects make The Bourne Identity a truly innovative action film, combining traditional ways of shooting a fight sequence with a new, snappy ‘shaky-cam’ method. Whilst Greengrass went overboard with the method; Liman knew how to perfectly utilise the newfound style, creating an evolved action film fit for the more gritty tastes of the 21st century. 

Since the trilogy’s ultimatum in 2007, it is well-recognised as a significant milestone in action cinema, inspiring the notable revamp in the style and sophistication of James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. Gone was the flashy smart-talking and blasé attitude to danger, Daniel Craig’s Bond bought an emotional core influenced by its newfound approach to realistic action. Whilst Bourne brought a snappy, kinetic pace to how action films were shot, it also inadvertently heralded a more serious attitude to the story at hand. When every punch, kick and bullet suddenly had so much more of an impact, a sincere story became paramount to complement this. 

Over anything else, Bourne taught Hollywood cinema how to take action seriously.