Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Jason Bourne is back! Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves of where he has been.

There's no obvious reason for The Bourne Identity to have been as good as it was, or to have wielded such extraordinary influence over the spy movie genre in the years following its 2002 premiere. I don't think it filled any particular spot in the movie ecosystem that had been underserved, and there's no inherent reason that the director of Swingers and the star of Good Will Hunting would have it in them to collaborate on the best American action movie the year it came out. Everything just worked out perfectly and everybody just got lucky, I guess. Not least the audience.

Right from the moment it was new, it was clear that we had here a new kind of serious, grounded spy movie (but still with a good deal highly energetic action, of course), but just how new became even clearer later in 2002, when that other superspy with the initials JB had a new picture come out. Five months after The Bourne Identity, the 20th James Bond picture, Die Another Day came out, and the gap between those two movies says everything about how radical and frankly how necessary a movie like The Bourne Identity was; that it still feels reasonably contemporary and fresh after 14 years, while Die Another Day looks like an embarrassing old-fashioned cartoon, demonstrates how resoundingly it won. The dreadful iceberg surfing and diamond-faced villain without a personality in the Bond picture were completely mortifying in the wake of Jason Bourne's savagely low-key schlep across Europe, which is probably why the subsequent Bond movies have looked so much like Bourne movies in the intervening years. And I do not think we should credit it just for bringing the spy thriller back down to earth; the movie came out right at the dawn of the era of more realistic popcorn movies with real-world concerns, and while I think it would be an extraordinary overreach to credit The Bourne Identity for The Dark Knight, we can at least praise it for getting out in front of a trend.

Not that any of this matters very much, or really crosses your mind while you're in the middle of watching the thing. Even without historical context (or knowing how messily the Bond franchise was about to shit the bed), The Bourne Identity is just a really gosh-damn good spy thriller. As taken from the novel by Robert Ludlum, it's a glorious mixture of high concept and intimate stakes: at night, an unconscious man (Matt Damon) is retrieved from the Mediterranean by an Italian fishing boat, and when revived, that man - an American who can speak multiple languages flawlessly - has no clue how he came to be in the water, or even for that matter who he is. All he knows is that his body and mind have been well-trained by somebody to be incredibly good at survival, both as a physical combatant and as a wily problem-solver. Eventually, he finds his way to a bank in ZΓΌrich, where he finds a great deal of money and a passport with his face identifying him as one Jason Bourne. As we find out a great deal sooner than he does, Bourne is a CIA assassin, part of a top-secret black op code-named "Treadstone", and his failure to execute an exiled African dictator named Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) has caused quite the headache for his handler, Conklin (Chris Cooper), whose overabundance of initiative has caused his own boss, Abbott (Brian Cox) to breathe down his neck rather angrily. The simplest solution and most expedient is to send his own team of non-amnesiac assassins to take Bourne down; the errant spy, however, has enough of an instinctual memory of tradecraft to keep one or two steps ahead of the CIA, aided by the German drifter Marie (Franke Potente).

The sequels would complicate things a great deal, but as far as The Bourne Identity goes, everything is breathtakingly, beautifully simple: a spy doesn't remember who he is, and he uses the knowledge he can't remember to avoid being killed. Nothing more than that, and the mere fact that we have a big-budget spy picture - a big-budget summer movie of any sort, really - where the stakes do not go any bigger than "the protagonist does not wish to die" is pretty damn appealing, to begin with. It focuses the film's attention considerably, and allows us to only care, as Bourne does himself, about how this moment and this danger are going to resolve themselves. The movie thus becomes mostly about Bourne's own ingenuity and skills: it's basically a character study, disguised as a mystery, wearing the clothes of an action film. Which is, I think, pretty great, particularly since Damon makes for such a superb Bourne. The actor's gift and limitation, as has only become clearer and clearer in the years since The Bourne Identity, is that he comes across as strikingly, painfully ordinary: he's movie-star handsome, of course, but one always has the sense watching him that if he hadn't made it as an actor, he'd have been a fine chemistry teacher or grocery store manager. He's all-American in a very bland way. And that aspect of his persona works extraordinarily well with this character, a smudgy enigma even to himself, a lack of self swirling around behaviors and instincts rather than a personality. That someone with these burned-in limitations should be so likable and charismatic is absolutely due entirely to having Damon playing him.

Given the way that Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron's screenplay focuses on a succession of incidents, the film could easily end up too episodic for its own good. This does not happen: in fact, The Bourne Identity is paced like a screaming rocketship, blazing through two hours like they're barely even there. There are a few reasons for this. One is a marvelous score by John Powell, who provides racing strings and pounding, constant percussion elements, lending even the simplest moments an overriding feeling of pulsing urgency. Given how ultimately small most of the film is, and how rarely it actually erupts into actual action, having the music promise us that we're looking at something intense and exciting counts for a lot. And of course a great deal of credit for this goes to director Doug Liman, whose career includes no other movies like this one, and in fact his most structurally similar film, 2008's Jumper, is notably bad in exactly the ways that The Bourne Identity is good. But he sure as hell nailed it this time - the pacing of scenes remains variable enough that it never becomes monotonous, with slower sequences dropping exposition out in half-formed throughts that don't come quite in order giving way to fire-cracker sequences of Bourne doing something as simple as opening a bank deposit box, which is cut with a harried, nerve-wracking rhythm that adds unexpected intensity to such a straightforward plot scene.

Best of all is the editing, by Saar Klein. The Bourne Identity plays with rhythm in extraordinarily interesting, effective ways: it's not at all uncommon in this film for scenes to clip off before they're really done, leaving us in a scramble to keep up, and that starts right from the beginning. Bourne's confusion upon reviving is foreshadowed by the totally discontinuous editing prior to his retrieval (dark shots fail to match up with each other in any physically logical way, and the first shot of Bourne's body jumps into the film quite suddenly) and is reiterated by a series of truncated moments that leave us entirely unclear as to how time is passing until Bourne finally arrives in Switzerland. Generally speaking, the fragmentary aspect of the film decreases as it moves onward (and the lighting generally increases as well), in a pretty clear mapping of Bourne's increasing confidence onto the structure of the film; this does start to rob it of some momentum, though there's only one instance where I'd say it actually harms the movie. The layover with Marie's ex Eamon (Tim Dutton) serves, deliberately, as a breather for both the viewer and the characters, but I can't help but think it's a little too aimless. And it allows the film to cheat a little: early on, the Europe action is intercut with scenes in the CIA offices in Langley, allowing the movie to deliver exposition by implication rather than outright stating what's going on - we deduce, rather than actually learn that Bourne is ex-CIA - in a way that I'm not entirely sure I approve of. But it's a pretty cool bit of narrative sleight of hand.

It's hard, at this later date, to appropriately judge The Bourne Identity without being aware of how much more aesthetically radical its first two sequels would be. For the most part, outside of its ruthlessly low stakes and its quick-footed editing, this isn't revolutionary stuff; but it would be ridiculous to say it has to be. On its on terms, the film is supremely confident in what it's doing, and sober-minded thrillers that rely more on plausible physics and the intelligence of its characters than over-the-top spectacle are an unduly rare commodity. Besides, the appeal of spies doggedly traipsing around Europe has been undying since the 1960s. I prefer both of the films that followed it in the next five years, but by all means, The Bourne Identity is a particularly great piece of 2000s blockbuster cinema, and it is worth returning to it even without reference to its epic sequels.

Reviews in this series
The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002)
The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007)
The Bourne Legacy (Gilroy, 2012)
Jason Bourne (Greengrass, 2016)