The Bourne Identity (Photo: Universal/Getty Images)

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

It’s one of our great action-movie traditions, right up there with the moment that 007, in the middle of the circle, turns and shoots the camera while the John Barry theme plays. Jason Bourne, harassed and hunted by the forces of the government that he once served, shakes his attackers, discredits their bosses, and does a final awesome thing. And at the final moment, John Powell’s tense, jittery score fades into the staccato synth-stabs of Moby’s “Extreme Ways”—a song that, in any non-Bourne capacity, sucks real bad. It always works. You always get that little tingle, that fuck yeah, he did it again feeling. The quality of the movies themselves might vacillate, but Jason Bourne himself will never fail you.

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Maybe that’s the genius of Doug Liman’s original Bourne Identity, a surprise monster hit in 2002. The movie might’ve been based on a 1980 Robert Ludlum novel, the first in a series, but its ideas had a new resonance in those confusing days. This was, after all, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a time when American audiences had to confront the idea that we didn’t know jack shit, that there were forces out there that wanted to destroy us and a government too feeble and distracted to stop them—or, just maybe, a government that cared more about imposing its own will than about protecting us. Bourne himself was basically a tragic figure: a confused man, trying to figure out who he is, besieged on all sides by his former employers. The movie’s villains weren’t nefarious foreign forces; they were cruel and bumbling bureaucrats, malevolent middle managers who react to any ambiguity by trying to kill something. And so, through sheer luck and timing, Jason Bourne became a hero for a scary, muddled, confusing time. But the people who made The Bourne Identity weren’t rule-breakers. They merely found a way to use this dark new reality to tell a conventional, satisfying action-movie story.

The end credits with the movie song aren’t the only convention you’ll find in The Bourne Identity and the movies that followed. For all the adrenal, erratic energy of those movies, they’re pretty formulaic. Jason Bourne will inevitably get into a car chase in some far-flung European city, and he’ll inevitably turn a common household object into a deadly weapon while he’s fighting another assassin. (In the first movie, it’s Paris and a pen.) But through kinetic storytelling and the geopolitical context in which they find themselves, the Bourne movies have always made those moves feel fresh. And they never felt fresher than they did in that first movie.

Looking at the historical record, it’s pretty amazing that The Bourne Identity even exists as a coherent film, let alone one that would tap the zeitgeist of the moment, launch a franchise, and help reshape action cinema in its image. Liman, making his first studio movie after the enduringly fun indie successes Swingers and Go, did not want to hear any bullshit from the studio, and the studio did not want to indulge Doug Liman. They clashed over and over through the production, with the studio fighting Liman on seemingly every one of his creative choices and screenwriter Tony Gilroy forced to fax in new pages of script while the movie was shooting. Liman had to redo the movie’s entire ending after test audiences didn’t like it. But a movie that logically should seem stitched-together and incoherent instead thrums along like a crisp, efficient machine.

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A lot of that comes down to casting. Matt Damon supposedly got the Bourne part after Brad Pitt turned it down and after the studio had gone sniffing around people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, and Sylvester Stallone; any one of those possibilities opens up strange new alternate universes to consider. But Damon’s fresh-faced innocence is key to the movie’s appeal. As a guy who doesn’t understand why he’s so good at killing people, he’s both believable and sympathetic. (When Damon ditches the gun that had been in his safe-deposit box, it makes sense. It’s not easy to imagine Schwarzenegger doing that.) I love that first fight scene, when Damon dispatches two cops in a Zurich park with brutal economy, then finds himself standing there with their gun, breathing heavily, not sure what even just happened.

But the Damon of that first movie is still an enigma, a walking question mark in search of his own humanity. He can’t really ground the movie. Instead, that job goes to Franka Potente, who was coming off of the great German action-cartoon headfuck Run Lola Run. Marie, Potente’s character, had nothing to do with all the backroom political machinations, but she was, in her way, just as rootless a character as Bourne. We never see her getting high, but we get the sense that she probably does; after all, she checks Bourne’s medicine cabinet and buys some cheap liquor when she finally gets a moment to breathe. And even as Bourne is on the run from cops and shadowy agents, she stays with him. She likes him. It makes sense, and it makes the movie feel a whole lot more human than it otherwise might.

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“I don’t like her,” Chris Cooper sneers when he sees Potente’s face blown up on a computer screen. And that’s all we need to know about his dickhead character. Because who wouldn’t like Franka Potente? In his role, Cooper confirms all our darkest fears about the petty back-office dictators who are really, seemingly running the world with no checks or oversight. When Cooper barks that he wants Bourne dead by sundown, he’s not protecting the lives of innocent people. He’s covering his own ass, and he’s lashing out at anything he doesn’t understand. To him, Bourne isn’t a human being; he’s a piece of malfunctioning machinery: “You’re U.S. government property! You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon! You’re a total damn catastrophe!” Meanwhile, Brian Cox, his boss, is even worse. He just wants to get out of his congressional oversight hearing without losing any funding. He’s happy to lie his face off to get it, but he can’t abide any attention on what he or his underlings are doing.

But it’s not just the cast that makes The Bourne Identity work. It’s the approach to action filmmaking, the way the fight scenes are fast and real and nasty. If you listen to Liman talk today, he’ll say that he invented the fast, choppy editing style that Paul Greengrass pushed forward in the Bourne sequels. And Liman’s fights are certainly quick and jarring. But where those sequels are happy to put your head in a blender, Liman is at least connected to the history of action movies. In his fights, you have a pretty good idea what’s happening most of the time, even if your brain has to race to keep up. The fight in Bourne’s Paris apartment is a masterpiece of the form. It’s immediately obvious that these are two very dangerous people trying to kill each other, but even in the midst of the fight’s frantic intensity, we know where these guys are and what they’re trying to do to one another. Our imaginations don’t have to fill in the gaps.

Damon did a lot of his own stunts and fighting, and he put work into those things. He didn’t pose or preen or deliver one-liners. Instead, he came off as a very capable guy doing whatever he can to stay alive. These aren’t realistic movies, but Damon plays those scenes as straight as he can, and that helps to sell them. And in scenes like the one where he’s hanging off of a Zurich rooftop, he seems to be in immediate physical peril in ways that, for instance, James Bond never quite does. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Liman had never really shot an action scene before Bourne. He knew what he was doing.

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That first movie, of course, led to a lot of things, things that went beyond the four sequels and the sudden realization that Matt Damon could be a perfectly credible action star. Before Bourne, action movies were sliding toward silly self-consciousness. The characters in Michael Bay movies, for instance, looked and acted like they knew they were in a movie. Damon, by contrast, had no idea what was going on, and neither did the people hunting him. He was a larger-than-life action-hero badass, and yet there was nothing silly about his presentation. And so that first Bourne movie showed that you could make a movie like that—and that in a newly uncertain age, we still needed heroes.

Other notable 2002 action movies: Runner-up honors for 2002 have to go to The Transporter, a movie that launched another franchise. The Transporter has a few things in common with The Bourne Identity: It’s essentially a kung fu movie, except made in a European setting, with a European sensibility, and it’s entirely sincere. But unlike with Bourne, The Transporter has silliness in its sincerity. And unlike Bourne, it was a B-movie that wasn’t trying to be anything other than a B-movie. It represented a new sort of international approach to the action movie: Hong Kong director, French producer-screenwriter, English star. And that English star is, of course, the movie’s chief legacy. In his first real starring role, Jason Statham was an absolute beast, a grunting and glowering powerhouse who could wear a suit and throw a kick convincingly. To this day, he’s probably the most consistent action star we’ve got left, at least on this side of the planet.

There were actually a lot of important, memorable action movies coming out of Hollywood in 2002, and many of them represent fascinating, opposing approaches to the genre. With Blade II, for instance, Guillermo Del Toro made an absolute classic, elevating the already-badass original by injecting it with his surreal artistic sensibilities and bringing in action choreographer Donnie Yen to make the fights look great. It’s timeless. I could say the exact opposite of XXX, in which Vin Diesel and director Rob Cohen both left the Fast And The Furious franchise behind so that they could reimagine James Bond as an extreme-sports energy-drink goober. With its hilariously naked attempt to appeal to young folks, American-flag parachute, and mind-boggling parade of cameos (Rammstein! Tony Hawk! Eve!), XXX couldn’t possibly be any more 2002. I love it so much.

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With his Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report, Steven Spielberg had a lot of fun playing futuristic post-Matrix mind games, but he also made what might be his purest non-Indiana Jones, non-Duel action movie; the chase scenes that take up much of the movie’s first half hold up beautifully. Not much in The Scorpion King has aged as well as that; it’s a big jolt of CGI-addled swords-and-sandals silliness. But it’s also the first time that wrestling star The Rock—actually still credited as “The Rock” in those days—got a starring role to himself, and he proved to be more than capable of carrying it.

Looking at 2002’s action movies, there’s a lot of sense that Hollywood was trying to catch up with both The Matrix and video games. That’s how we got Resident Evil, a giddy martial-arts-against-zombies spectacular that somehow spawned a six-movie franchise. It’s also how we got Equilibrium, which marries some genuinely breathtaking gun-fu scenes—the movie’s characters actually talk about “gun-kata” like it’s a real martial art—with a gallingly clumsy dystopian plotline. And maybe that’s even how we got the glorious Reign Of Fire, in which Equilibrium star Christian Bale wanders a post-apocalyptic wasteland and fights dragons. (We’ve had so many zombie-apocalypse movies that it’s a hopeless cliché at this point. But to this date, Reign Of Fire remains, as far as I know, our one and only dragon-apocalypse movie. And it’s so awesome! More dragon-apocalypse movies, please!)

And then there were the misfires. All About The Benjamins was basically Bad Boys 2, except one year earlier and even more stunningly violent. Collateral Damage forced Arnold Schwarzenegger into the ill-fitting role of grieving husband and father and then sent him off to get revenge against terrorists. The Tuxedo fundamentally misunderstood what makes Jackie Chan amazing—the fact that he’s really doing all this stuff, without trickery—and forced him into a CGI-heavy slapstick comedy. Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan’s final Bond movie, was also the only Bond movie with an invisible car; even Roger Moore, the king of the way-too-silly Bond movie, thought it was way too silly. Half Past Dead gave us a long-past-his-prime Steven Seagal starring alongside an already-past-his-prime Ja Rule. Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever was directed by an adult human who decided to call himself Kaos, and that’s really all you need to know about that.

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With apologies to Minority Report, the year’s most visually breathtaking action movie was China’s Hero, a ravishing post-Crouching Tiger wuxia epic with an oddly pro-empire message and a stunning cast of Hong Kong legends, including Jet Li, who took a break from making dumb American B-movies for long enough to anchor something great. Hong Kong itself gave us Infernal Affairs, the knotty cops-and-robbers epic that would become the source material for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. And South Korea yielded Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, a grisly thriller that may or may not count as a real action movie but which showed its homeland to be a place where some really grimy shit would show up in mainstream movies.

Next time: Quentin Tarantino gives the world the masterful Kill Bill: Volume 1, his only true action movie.