A wounded young man (Matt Damon) is rescued from the Mediterranean by some fishermen. In his back, he has two bullets and a capsule encoded with a Swiss bank account number. The injury to his body is nothing compared to the trauma of not being able to remember who he is or why he was floating in the sea. Without any clues to his identity, this amnesia victim heads off to Zurich where he finds a safe deposit box filled with a variety of passports, a gun, and stacks of money from several countries. He decides his name must be Jason Bourne, and that he lives in Paris.
On the streets of the city, he is followed. The resourceful young man escapes into the American consulate only to find the security forces there are after him as well. He luckily happens upon Marie (Franka Potente) who accepts his offer of $10,000 to drive him to Paris. This German vagabond is carrying a heavy load of burdens herself and needs the money.
Meanwhile at CIA headquarters, Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper) is furious when he learns that one of his operatives Jason Bourne has eluded all attempts to capture him. He has bungled a hit on an African leader who is now ready to blow the horn on the CIA’s clandestine operations. Conklin is under pressure from his superior (Brian Cox) to clean up this mess. He immediately contacts other assassins in Europe, who are trained in the same skills as Bourne.
Little by little, Bourne learns more about himself. He discovers that he instinctively knows the best escape route out of any room and is always assessing situations for danger. After he goes to his large Paris apartment, he realizes that people are after him. He is astonished to discover his physical prowess in hand-to-hand combat. After the African politician is assassinated, he realizes that he is a trained assassin and no one is safe around him. This creates a dilemma for Marie, who has chosen to run with him.
The Bourne Identity is based on a 1980 espionage thriller by Robert Ludlum, which was turned into a 1988 miniseries on ABC television starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith. Doug Liman directs this fast-paced thriller in which Bourne struggles to reassemble the puzzle of his life while being attacked from all sides. Matt Damon proves he can be an action star in addition to playing the sensitive and vulnerable roles he’s done before.
Two thematic elements lift this espionage tale a cut above others in the genre. First, all of us can identify with the protagonist’s quest to find out his real identity. The culture has given us many resources dealing with past life experiences. Can you picture yourself as a warrior in a tribe of aboriginals or as a writer in Renaissance Italy? Could you be a spy? Second, the screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron never lets us forget that Bourne, the loose-cannon operative, was once an amoral assassin just like the ones who are pursuing him. In The Bourne Identity there is no “us” versus “them”. This ethical perspective is one that needs to be given repeated hearings in our present-day world.
The DVD edition has an audio track with director Doug Liman in which he comments on casting, adapting the book, and shooting on location. There are also a few deleted scenes, a “making of” featurette, and an alternate ending.