Promotional trailer for the 1988 miniseries

The first time the public can see an actor playing Jason Bourne is in the 1988 ABC Miniseries The Bourne Identity, starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith.
In the 2002 film version, those roles are played by Matt Damon and Franke Potente.

The Bourne Identity

Robert Ludlum created the Jason Bourne character in his 1980 book “The Bourne Identity. Bourne is a CIA agent who has amnesia he suffered from a failed mission.

The Bourne Identity, editorial content, spy movies, spy movie podcasts, espionage, Matt DamonSo he is set up to be a fascinating character, as he has the skills he was trained for in terms of fighting and deduction.  But who is he?  How did he get these skills?  He can’t remember.   Jason Bourne struggles to figure out his past, and this is what drives him in this movie.  And we see this theme again in the next books and in the movie series.

The Bourne Identity is a movie with not too many scenes that seem to be inspired by other movies.   So, original concepts abound.  The amnesia of an agent, the chases, the 4-story freefall, all appears to be unique ideas for a film at the time.

But, we will look at the key scenes, draw some connections to other movies, and see if we can gain any insights: 

  • Amnesia is not new to the Bourne series. Is it portrayed accurately?
  • Other movies mentioned: Two in the Dark(1936); Random Harvest (1942; Street of Chance (1942);  Stage Fright (1950), Female Fiends (1952; The Groundstar Conspiracy; Memento  (2000), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996); Total Recall (1990); The Long Kiss Goodnight (1979); Finding Nemo (2003); The Fugitive; US Marshalls; For Your Eyes Only; The Master Touch; From Russia With Love
  • The car chase introduces a chase a la For Your Eyes Only with the Citroen, only here it is a beat-up Mini.

The water and the boat

The movie starts with crew on a boat in rough seas that sees a body floating in the water. They pull the body out of the water. It is Jason Bourne and he has lost consciousness. There are bullets in the body and one of the crew members (Giancarlo) removes the bullets and finds a metal object which can project information about a bank account in Jason’s hip.

When Jason comes to, he asks where he is and what they are trying to do to him. Giancarlo tries to settle him down and asks: “Who are you. What is your Name”. Jason answers, “I don’t know”, and starts getting hostile, asking where he is. Not in the clip, but later in the scene, Giancarlo sees a knotted rope. “What’s this, you tie these knots? So, it starts to come back?” Jason replies: “No, it doesn’t start to come back. The knot is like everything else. I just found the rope and I did it. The same way I can read. I can write. I can add, subtract. I can make coffee …”. Then he says that it is not coming back. “When we get in there tomorrow, I don’t even have a name”. This scene really strikes me as you can see Jason’s frustration, and those lines can make you empathize with what he is going through.

Amnesia in movies is not new with the Bourne series. However, usually, the amnesia isn’t portrayed with much scientific accuracy. This article explains this misuse of amnesia and how some films portray it: One part of the article of note is the following: “in many cases of cinematic amnesia, head injuries lead to loss of memory of earlier events (retrograde amnesia), but the character usually goes on to lead an otherwise normal life. Real patients who incur brain damage usually suffer from anterograde amnesia – they lose the ability to form new memories, but their memories of events that occurred before the amnesia often remain intact”. The amnesia in Memento is a more accurate display of how amnesia usually works. Jason Bourne suffers from retrograde amnesia by not remembering his past.

Some of the films that use amnesia as a plot point include: Two in the Dark (1936), Random Harvest (1942), Street of Chance (1942) – Note, this is the film with Burgess Meredith, not the 1930 film with the same name starring William Powell –  Stage Fright (1950), Female Fiends (1952), The Groundstar Conspiracy.  Some of these include Memento (2000), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996),  Total Recall (1990), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1979), and Finding Nemo (2003).  This list is not by any means exhaustive but shows that amnesia is a fairly common plot point. We found a more complete list of these films at this webpage

No Papers

After getting off the boat, Jason is sleeping in a park. Two police officers approach him and ask him for his papers. The conversation starts out in English but changes into German. Jason has no problem with the language. Jason doesn’t have any papers and resists their attempts to detain him. He disarms the officers, dispatching them quite easily and ends up holding one of their guns. He looks at the gun as if saying “How in the world did I do that?”, disassembles it, throws it on the ground and runs off. He also speaks German to them. Again, he knows how to do things, but doesn’t consciously do them. He just reacts but doesn’t know how.

CIA briefing

This scene is a CIA briefing of Nykwana Wombosi, former leader of a country who is now in exile. He wants to be put back into power. He says he was a target of an assassination attempt. This is followed by a conversation between Ward Abbott and Conklin discussing whether the CIA was involved. They talk around the topic and then Ward mentions a project Treadstone which is the key project of the Bourne series. Bourne was supposed to assassinate Wombosi but failed. This scene sets up why the CIA wants Bourne dead. Conklin says later in the film “I want Bourne in a body bag by sundown.”

The Swiss Bank and safe Deposit box

Jason Bourne goes to a bank in Switzerland and gets a safe deposit box. This was in the information in the metal object Giancarlo finds in Jason’s hip at the beginning of the film. In the safe deposit box, he finds his US passport which says his name is Jason Bourne. It also has other documentation that says he lives in Paris. As he continues looking at a sub-compartment of the safe deposit box, he finds numerous passports with different names, a large amount of cash in different denominations, and some guns. He dumps all the contents into a bag and starts to leave the bank. The music in this scene is great as it heightens the tension as Jason looks at the money, passports, and guns and his facial expression is one of “who the heck am I?”

At the Embassy

Bourne walks into the embassy just as the Swiss police show up to arrest him for the incident with the police officers in the park. The embassy lets him in telling the police that they have no jurisdiction there. After they let him in, someone tries to detain him. Jason takes this guy out and then tries to figure out how to get out of the embassy. Dozens of guards with guns start looking for him as he tries to figure out how to escape. He obviously is successful and gets out.

It is amazing the number of movies where someone appears to be trapped in a building with lots of guards, yet they get out: The Fugitive and US Marshals are two movies that use this technique.

On the way to Paris

On the way to Paris, they stop for gas and food in a restaurant. Jason shows Marie the contents of the bag. He talks about the things he’s observed of the surroundings. “Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?” This is a short clip but continues to show that he has the instincts of an agent but is struggling to figure out why.

In the apartment

Once they get into Jason’s apartment in Paris, he calls the last number dialed and gets a hotel. The hotel tells him that they don’t have any record of him there. He then asks for a different name (John Michael Kane) which was a name in the safe deposit box.  He is told that the person was killed in a car accident two weeks before. The hotel tells him that the man’s brother came to pick up his things. This really sets Jason on edge and he grabs a knife from the kitchen which he drops when Marie walks into the room.

Jason nervously looks around when an assassin breaks through his window and tries to shoot him. There is a good fight that ensues with Jason knocking the guy out while using a pen. While the guy is on the ground and Jason is asking for who the guy is, Marie looks through his bag and sees pictures from the embassy of both of them. Marie is very upset and Jason has to physically move her away from the assassin. While he is doing this, the guy he had been fighting stands up, jumps out the window and gets hit by a car.

Again, this fight seems to introduce new items in film fights: Jason’s use of the pen as a weapon and the assassin jumping out the window to his death.

The Car Chase

After they leave, the police spot him again and there is a car chase.

Marie’s car is an old beat-up Mini. In the Mission: Impossible and James Bond films, they are usually driving high-end sports cars (boats or motorcycles) in their chases. Even in The Italian Job, a new shiny Mini is used for the chase.

Seeing the old Mini being chased around Paris really is a nice change of pace for this type of chase. It is a throwback to Bond driving the Citroen in For Your Eyes Only (1981).  As part of the Bourne chase, they drive down a steep stairway which is a great effect. They leave her car in a parking garage and Jason tells Marie that she can never come back to the car.

“The Master Touch” (1974)

Not many movies have stairways as part of a car chase. One movie which does is “The Master Touch” (1974). In this film, there is a car chase where one car pushed another car backward down a steep stairway. This happens about 5 minutes into this clip.

Jason and The Professor

The next morning Jason senses a problem. The family dog is not around. Jason tells the family to get down to the basement. The phone line has been cut. Jason knows and that an assassin is waiting for them outside. This scene picks up where Jason goes out to kill the assassin. He hunts The Professor down and shoots him. He has a conversation with The Professor before he dies. “I work alone like you. … Who are you, Rome? Paris? Treadstone, both of us” . . . “Do you get the headaches”. Jason asks him “What is Treadstone?” So now Jason knows the project name Treadstone but doesn’t know what it means.

Eamon takes the kids and Marie off. Jason leaves Marie with Eamon and says he is going to “end it”. He looks through The Professor’s bag and finds his cell phone. Jason calls the last number from this which gets him routed to Conklin. Bourne asks “Who is this. Who the hell are you? The man you sent is dead”. Conklin tries to coax Jason into coming in with Marie. Bourne tells Conklin that Marie is dead. He sets up a meeting with Conklin in Paris. He tells Conklin to come alone, which of course Conklin disobeys. Jason calls him and tells him he’s leaving. He then places a locator on one of the trucks he identifies as a CIA vehicle and follows it to the CIA safe house when Conklin is.

The Safe House

Jason confronts Conklin in the safehouse at gunpoint. They have a conversation. Jason asks Conklin if Conklin is Treadstone. They have an argument. Jason asks, “Who am I”. Conklin’s response “You’re US government property. You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon. You’re a total goddamned catastrophe”. Jason then says, “You sent me to kill Wombosi”. Conklin replies “I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible.”

They then talk about Wombosi’s boat. During this conversation, Jason has a flashback with him standing above Wombosi with his gun drawn and one of Wombosi’s children is there looking at Jason. Jason panics because of the kids, doesn’t shoot Wombosi and as he tries to leave, he gets shot and go. He ends up in the water which is where the movie started. After the flashback, he tells Conklin “I don’t want to do this anymore”. He tells Conklin he’s leaving and that as far as Conklin is concerned, he’s dead. During this conversation, he hears a noise and confronts agents coming to kill him. This clip shows the fight that ensues including an incredible 4-story freefall during which Jason shoots an assassin. We then see Conklin leave the building and another assassin. This time, the assassin shoots Conklin. Ward Abbot is shown testifying that the Treadstone project had been decommissioned and lied about what Treadstone was.

The final scene

The movie ends with Bourne finding Marie in a shop/restaurant selling on a Greek island. The shop rents scooters and has a restaurant. This scene ends with Jason and Marie hugging and pulls out to show the island. It rolls right into the ending credits and song.

Remember, this is one of the few spy movies without a pre-title sequence since From Russia With Love introduced the concept of a pre-title sequence in spy movies.

As a nice touch, the red bag that Bourne got at the bank and had carried the money is hanging behind the cash register and is being used as a planter with some flowers.


Subscribe on your favorite podcast app