Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.
Director Paul Greengrass has become so closely identified with the Bourne franchise (his return is the reason the new movie, Jason Bourne, is even getting made) that it's easy to forget he hasn't actually been with the series since the beginning. Instead, The Bourne Identity, initially made as a mid-budget thriller without any long-term franchise plans, was directed by Doug Liman, a sort of journeyman director who's taken on many genres without a whole lot of personal style. That's not to say that Liman doesn't make good movies -- in addition to Identity, he directed Swingers, Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow, all solid pieces of entertainment (plus, let's not forget, the seminal first episode of The O.C.). But Liman isn't anybody's idea of an auteur, and his directorial style here is fairly anonymous, with lots of slick Hollywood elements (the sequence that depicts the activation of Bourne's fellow super-assassins, with its cheesy onscreen info text, is the most egregious).
That actually fits well with this movie, though, which follows a much more straightforward path than the sequels that come after it, without a lot of twists and surprises and backtracks. Yes, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has amnesia when he's found floating in the sea by a French fishing boat, and yes, he's surprised by his own seemingly superhuman abilities. But the movie doesn't spend much time keeping the audience in the dark, cutting fairly quickly to the CIA office where amoral bureaucrat Conklin (Chris Cooper), the first in the series' long line of amoral government bureaucrats, calls on all his resources to bring Bourne in and/or take him down. This is also the only movie in the series to give Bourne a real love interest (Franka Potente's Marie), and that makes its portrayal of Bourne himself a lot warmer and more emotional. And since this wasn't designed as a franchise-starter, it can have an actual happy ending, with the two lovers reunited for a new life together.
That's not to say that Identity is entirely superficial; Cooper and Brian Cox (who'd get a larger role in the next movie) make for perfect representations of the callous disregard of the government for people like Bourne. The scene at the end of the movie, with Cox's Ward Abbott casually dismissing the Treadstone project as a failed experiment before quickly moving on to the next budget item, is cruelly effective in depicting how irrelevant Bourne's suffering is to the people who created it. This movie was released less than a year after 9/11, and it depicts the growing paranoia about a surveillance state that would only become more all-encompassing in subsequent years (and in subsequent movies in this series).
It's also a very effective, suspenseful action movie, with one of the best car chases of all time (which subsequent movies would continue trying to top) and some awesome fight sequences between Bourne and the various killing machines sent to take him out (including one played by Clive Owen in a nearly wordless performance). The entire cast is strong: Damon proves himself to be a bona fide action star (even though he hasn't played many action roles outside of the Bourne series); Potente plays an appealing and believable love interest who isn't just a damsel in distress; Cooper and Cox are appropriately oily and ruthless as the villains; Owen gets a nice little speech as his character is dying, describing some of the dehumanizing treatment that would be explored over the next few movies; and Julia Stiles makes a promising first appearance as Nicky, the low-level agent who eventually becomes a key Bourne ally. They all play crucial roles in bringing the story together, and while the later movies may have more artistic ambition and real-world relevance, Identity works best as a self-contained popcorn thriller with just the right amount of substance.