Welcome back to Remake Rumble, where we pit an original film against its remake in a bout of mortal combat. Two films enter, one film leaves. The original, despite popular belief, isn’t always the victor. Sometimes remakes actually improve on the source material, damn it. Usually they don’t, but hey… That’s what we’re here to find out.
This bi-week on the Remake Rumble we’re pitting two spy films against each other in a battle for supremacy… Bourne supremacy. That’s right. It’s The Bourne Identity vs.The Bourne Identity, aka “A Movie You Love” vs. “A Movie You Probably Didn’t Know Existed.”
When director Doug Liman released his version of The Bourne Identity in 2002, few remembered that Robert Ludlum’s classic spy novel had been adapted before – and more faithfully – in 1998, as a two-part TV movie. Starring Richard Chamberlain and former Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith, the globetrotting Cold War adventure earned an Emmy for its music and a Golden Globe nomination for its lead actor and then promptly vanished into obscurity. 14 years later, Doug Liman’s version came out after a well-documented, disastrous production period which involved heavy reshoots which required the 2001 release date to be pushed back almost a year. It wasn’t a sure thing, but ultimately opened to critical and box office success, warranting two sequels and an upcoming spin-off called The Bourne Legacy.
So popular culture, perhaps, has declared the 2002 Bourne Legacy the winner, but is it actually the better film? Let’s get ready to rumble…
WHAT ARE THEY ABOUT?
Both versions of The Bourne Identity begin pretty much the same way, with a mysterious man found in the ocean off the coast of France, pumped full of bullets and with no memory of his real identity. The only clue to this mystery is found lodged in his hip: a series of digits, easily identified as a Swiss bank account number. The mystery man makes his way to Switzerland and opens the account, finding millions of dollars and a name… “Jason Bourne.” But no sooner is the account opened than his life is endangered. Mysterious men are out to kill Jason (Richard Chamberlain in the original, Matt Damon in the remake), who soon sets out with a lovely accomplice, Marie (Jaclyn Smith, then Franke Potente), who quickly finds herself wanted by the authorities too.
As the film plays out and Bourne evades both the authorities and a mysterious organization known as “Treadstone,” he begins to suspect that before his memory loss he was a coldblooded assassin. He fends off wave after wave of hired killers as he uncovers the truth, falls in love, and eventually discovers the truth behind “The Bourne Identity.”
The original and the remake of The Bourne Identity are pretty similar from a plot perspective until the second half, in which the 2002 version begins to divert pretty heavily from Robert Ludlum’s original novel. In contrast, the 1988 version hews pretty close to the source material, for better and worse.
In both versions of The Bourne Identity, the man we come to know as “Jason Bourne” suspects he’s an assassin. In the 1988 version, however, Bourne comes to believe that he is the assassin: “Carlos the Jackal,” the most famous hired killer in history, who in real life currently serves a life sentence in France for assassinating two French secret agents and a Lebanese informant back in 1975. In the events of The Bourne Identity, however, he is still on the loose, and the most wanted man on the planet. Nobody has even seen his face, so Bourne’s specific skill set leads him to believe that he’s actually been Carlos all along. Eventually we learn that Carlos the Jackal is an entirely different person, and that “The Bourne Identity” was created by the U.S. government to flush him out of hiding by creating a copycat killer, thus forcing Carlos to show himself in order to prove his dominance in the criminal underworld. It ends with a final confrontation between Bourne, who turns out to have been a loyal, heroic government agent all along, and Carlos (Frantic’s Yorgo Voyagis), in a shootout very similar to the climax of Liman’s later version.
In the 2002 remake, the events of the original film are so condensed that Bourne and Carlos literally became the same person. Although the name “Carlos the Jackal” is never mentioned, in Liman’s darker version of The Bourne Identity the hero’s greatest fears are actually realized: he’s been the bad guy all along, working for a Black Ops unit of the CIA by assassinating world leaders for the corrupt American government. The update conveys the radically shifting loyalties of the audience who, after the end of the Cold War, started looking for enemies at home rather than abroad. The depiction of Treadstone itself confirms this: in the 1988 version they’re a group of lovable old men and women who meet for tea in a stylish New York brownstone, and want to believe that Bourne hasn’t gone rogue. In the 2002 version, they’re huddled in a basement office at the CIA and genuinely desperate to kill the hero in order to keep their secrets safe. The head of Treadstone is a lovable father figure to the hero in 1988’s The Bourne Identity, and a mysterious political player in the remake.
The other big shift comes in the form of the female protagonist, played by Jaclyn Smith in the original film as a doctor of economics, just like in the book. The 2002 version replaces her character with a more down-to-earth loner played by Run Lola Run’s Franke Potente. Smith is kidnapped by the hero and spends most of the first hour trying to escape Bourne’s clutches before he saves her from being raped and murdered by his enemies. In Liman’s The Bourne Identity, Potente is politely asked to accompany Bourne in exchange for $10,000, making her a willing accomplice who sympathizes with the hero right from the start.
Beyond that, The Bourne Identity remake reflects a number of other changes in the times, with Bourne’s pursuers taking advantage of computer technology to stay hot on the hero’s heels throughout the entire film. The 1998 version takes place over a much longer period, more befitting its three-hour running time. The remake introduces a series of assassins born out of the same training program as Jason Bourne, two of whom have memorable, action-packed confrontations with the hero (and one of whom is played by a pre-stardom Clive Owen).
WHICH VERSION IS BETTER?
The remake of The Bourne Identity is faster-paced, action-packed, easier to follow and builds more audience sympathy for the protagonist despite, or perhaps even because of, his more villainous past. But before we get to that, we need to explain that the 1988 Bourne Identity is actually a pretty good movie in its own right.
Most folks who’ve seen the 1988 Bourne Identity these days did so after Doug Liman’s version came to theaters, and were disappointed by its stodgier pacing and sometimes radically different plotline. Frankly, it’s not particularly fair to compare that version of The Bourne Identity to the new one, at least in a vacuum. Robert Young’s original version was a product of its time period, and as a Cold War era spy picture it holds up reasonable well with the rest of its then-contemporary brethren. It’s not as good as, say, Three Days of the Condor, but they’re clearly more closely related to each other than to the whizz-bang shoot ‘em ups released in theaters today.
The 1988 Bourne Identity is too long for its own good, outstaying its welcome particularly in the second half, when the plot gets a little too complicated and the action sequences get further and further apart. But the more eventful and involving first half, which finds our hero saddled with an irate kidnapping victim, bouncing from one mysterious location to another as he tries to figure out his identity, is a fairly exciting romp, and there are a handful of memorable chase scenes and shootouts, including a climactic showdown with Carlos the Jackal which is arguably more thrilling than Liman’s own, fairly rushed finale. Chamberlain is an older, more sedate Jason Bourne but as the events of the film wear on him he nicely conveys his character’s conflicted emotions, almost going completely mad by the end of the movie.
The only moment of actual, honest-to-god badness comes in the form of a protracted, utterly boring sex scene between Chamberlain and Smith. You can blame the fact that it was a Made-for-TV movie all you want, but the fact remains that you’ve probably seen more sensuous margarine commercials. Doug Liman’s film doesn’t have much of a sex scene, but Damon and Potente have moments of genuine intimacy, generating more sex appeal from dying Potente’s hair the original film could by taking off the same character’s clothes.
There’s no denying, however, that the 2002 Bourne Identity is the more entertaining movie in almost every regard. Liman keeps the action sequences intense and varied, with shootouts and car chases and fist fights and more elaborate games of cat and mouse preventing the film from ever feeling monotonous. Damon is also – sorry Mr. Chamberlain – the better actor, selling the hero’s physical prowess and inner struggle with more subtlety, although he owes a lot to Saar Klein’s impeccable editing, which deftly conveys each element of the story that commands Bourne’s attention, from essential plot points to the minutiae of his surroundings that affect his frame of mind.
Obviously Liman’s film is radically condensed compared to the three-hour 1988 original, but beyond mere pacing the decision to condense the character of Jason Bourne with his original villain, Carlos the Jackal, is an inspired one that prevents the hero from ever seeming like a conventional action movie do-gooder. The inner turmoil this creative decision forces upon the protagonist creates a darker Jason Bourne for a darker time, and a more believable hero and anti-hero simultaneously.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
The 2002 Bourne Identity trumps the original in thrills and character development, but despite popular belief the original film is a fun, if overlong Cold War spy drama with a lot to recommend it as well. If you only have to see one, see Doug Liman’s version. But if you want a faithful retelling of Robert Ludlum’s original novel, told in the style of spy movies from that same era, the 1988 Bourne Identity isn’t that bad at all.
Be sure to come back in two weeks for another installment of Remake Rumble! If you have any suggestions for future columns, please make your suggestions in the comments below.