“The very smallest thing with Bourne was, ‘If I don’t know who I am and I don’t know where I’m from, perhaps I can identify who I am by what I know how to do.’ We built a whole new world around that small idea.”
The Bourne Identity screenplay seems deceptively simple. It starts with a guy with two bullet holes in his back, floating in the Mediterranean, rescued on a fluke. When he comes to, he doesn’t know who he is. This sets up the mystery that will be the driving force behind this action thriller.
What is fascinating is how this seemingly simple plot maintains tension throughout by escalating organically with each new piece of information Bourne learns about himself, as this simultaneously escalates both the heat brought upon him and personal/character stakes.
In terms of opposing forces, it is reminiscent of The Fugitive, where with each search, Dr. Kimble exposes himself.
Each story exists before we get to enter it. The Bourne Identity starts with a major escalation. A man has been shot; he’s floating in the ocean, left for dead. We can assume that there’s a lot that has happened before.
Even though he is rescued and in recovery, the story is immediately complicated by having the main character have amnesia. He doesn’t know who he is, but he speaks French and Dutch and has bank info implanted in his hip. Now, these are all clues, but they also feel like escalations because they add to the overall mystery as well as anguish for the character.
Once he reaches Zurich, he further learns he’s a martial arts expert by disarming cops without shooting them. The information he finds at the bank, namely passports, cash, and guns, further escalates the premise question? Who is he?
Having gone to the bank alerts Treadstone… he’s alive and well. And “off the reservation.” Treadstone is introduced as the antagonist and is a mighty opponent…even though we don’t know exactly who they are we can surmise they are a powerful organization as they manage to implement the first pursuit at the US Embassy within minutes…a massive escalation which Bourne brought up himself by going to the bank.
After meeting and convincing Marie to drive him to Paris, his last known address, Treadstone discovers this from security footage and follows Marie’s car to Paris. In Paris, Bourne is confronted by an assassin at his old apartment; again, his actions cause more trouble and escalate his predicament.
Now, Bourne is pursued by two antagonists, Treadstone, who wants him shut down at all costs as they fear he might expose the clandestine operation and the local authorities who are pursuing the two very public deaths.
At this point the story escalates in a different way, Bourne and Marie get closer and intimate, which raises the personal stakes for both. They’re in it together and both are targets.
The personal situation is thrown into a crisis moment when Bourne uses another one of his identities, John Michael Kane, to dig deeper into his past, but he discovers more alarming news, i.e., that Kane is supposed to be dead and that Bourne was supposed to kill African dictator Wombosi, who lives in Paris in exile. Treadstone uses another operative to finally kill Wombosi and make it look like Bourn was behind it.
Marie, now aware that he is an assassin, fears for her own well-being and wants out. But Bourne is committed to taking Marie somewhere to safety as he knows that Treadstone would never leave a potential witness alive.
This situation also escalates the conflict within Treadstone where the two heads (Conklin and Abbot) clash about the program and its potential repercussions.
Bourne and Marie leave Paris for the countryside to hide at Marie's friend or ex. But they underestimate Treadstone’s reach. They have identified this place by analyzing Marie’s movements over the last few years. The antagonist is an outfit with seemingly limitless resources.
Treadstone sends the same assassin who killed Wombosi to eliminate Bourne and Marie at the country house, but Bourne outsmarts him and finally gets a bit more information about Treadstone from the dying assassin. He sends Marie on the way and far from him, then contacts Treadstone and offers a meetup. Again, information is used to escalate the story, except this time in Bourne’s favor, as he finally has the chance to drive the narrative.
When Treadstone shows up with a bunch of men in tow, Bourne lies that he killed Marie, and then follows the men to the Treadstone Paris apartment and confronts Conklin who gives him a few more bits of information, before Bourne tells him he simply wants to be left alone and knocks him out.
However, Conklin’s operatives realize Bourne is there and attempt to kill him in a shootout. Bourne escapes, and as he leaves the building, a third assassin waits in the car…and then kills Conklin. Abbot is tying up loose ends and is now in charge of Treadstone.
The story wraps up with Abbot providing false information about Treadstone in a congressional hearing, while Bourne finds Marie at the scooter rental place she’s running somewhere in Greece.
Forward motion is the lifeblood of any action thriller. The Bourne Identity does it by having the titular character uncover bits of information, which serve several purposes, including solving the identity mystery, driving the narrative, providing plot points, conflict, and, of course, escalating the story and stakes organically.
play by Tony Gilroy, William Blake Herron
Based on a book by Robert Ludlum
Directed by Doug Liman