The Bourne Identity (1988)

TV Mini series – 2 episodes
Country: United States
Directed by Roger Young
Richard Chamberlain, Jaclyn Smith, Anthony Quayle, Donald Moffat, Yorgo Voyagis,
Peter Vaughan, Denholm Elliot, Wolf Kahler
Music by Laurence Rosenthal

Based on the novel by Robert Ludlum

The first version of The Bourne Identity was put out as a two part mini-series, but the film makers didn’t seem to know what type of mini-series they were making. At times it is a fast moving spy thriller, and at others it moves into romantic drama territory. In the end we get an overlong mongrel which flitters between styles and fails to gel as a cohesive piece of entertainment.

On a positive note, if you happen to be a fan of Robert Ludlum (and there are a lot of them out there), you will be pleased to know that this production is a lot closer to the novel than the 2002 Matt Damon movie of the same name. That is not to say that it is better than the Damon version, it is simply more faithful.

The series starts with a model of a ship being tossed about on choppy seas. Oh, hang on, that’s not supposed to be a model, that’s supposed to be a real ship. In close up we see Jason Bourne (Richard Chamberlain) make his way out of a hatchway and onto the swaying deck. As some evil-doers chase Bourne, he makes his way to the edge of the deck and falls into the choppy sea below, just as the ship blows up. His body drifts with the current until he is washed ashore near a village called Port Noir, which is on the south coast of France. A group of fishermen find Bourne unconcious and take him to the local doctor.

I love genre cliches, and The Bourne Identity has a good one. It is the drunken disgraced doctor who comes good and patches up the injured hero. You’ve seen it so many times before. It was a stalwart of Film Noir, and even in recent times it still gets the odd workout (I last recall it being used in the Point Blank remake Payback with Mel Gibson – but I sure there are others). The drunken disgraced doctor in this case is Geoffrey Washburn played by Denholm Elliot.

Washburn may be a drunk, but he is sobre enough to dig the bullets out of Bourne’s carcass and then sew him back up. As Washburn examines Bourne, he finds a curious scar on his hip. There appears to be something lodged under the skin. With a scalpel, Washburn makes a small incision and retrieves the offending matter, which happens to be a piece of microfilm. Under a microscope, Washburn sees that it is a Swiss bank account number.

Up until this point, the show has been pretty good. Chamberlain would never have been my first choice for Bourne (but then again, neither would have Matt Damon), but Chamberlain is acceptable in the role. As Bourne begins to recuperate the series trots out its first hokey sequence. It features Bourne running along a beach with a group of children running along behind him mimmicking his actions. Added to this the music changes to a light hearted gig. I am guessing that the intention is to show that Bourne is not some callous psycotic monster, and having him interact with the children showcases the lighter side of his nature – but it dramatically changes the tone that the series had set so far. One minute we were watching a taut mystery thriller, and the next we are skipping along Sesame Street.

Later in Port Noir, some rough and tumble guys recognise Bourne in the street and try to kill him. Deciding that he is no longer safe in the village he decides to move on, but where? Washburn tells Bourne about the microfilm that he found and the Swiss bank account. He also provides what little money he has and a passport – which will need to be doctored.

Next we see Bourne in Zurich. He asks the taxi driver about the best hotels in the city. The driver rattles off a list. One rings a bell, the exclusive ‘Carillon Du Lac’. Bourne insist that he be taken there. At the reception desk Bourne is greeted enthusiastically by the concierge. Feining a sprained wrist, Bourne asks that the concierge fills in his hotel registration on his behalf. Bourne reads as the man writes, and discovers that his name is Jason Bourne – he didn’t know this yet. He also finds out that his employer is a company called ‘Treadstone 71’.

Bourne’s next port-of-call is the Swiss bank, and much to his surprise he finds out that he has fifteen million dollars squirreled away. What he doesn’t know is that he is being watched. Even before he has left the bank, he is attacked in the elevator. By the time he reaches the lobby, shots are being fired. Bourne elludes the killers and makes his way back to the hotel, preparing to leave – only to find that he is too late. The bad guys – whoever they are – are already closing in. At this juncture, Bourne latches onto Marie St. Jacques (Jaclyn Smith) who is also a guest at the hotel. She is a doctor attending a medical conference. At gunpoint, Bourne forces her to assist in his escape.

This is where the series really starts. Bourne drags along Marie, reluctantly at first as he tries to piece together his mysterious past. As the puzzle pieces fall into place, it becomes more and more likely that Bourne is an assassin. In fact he is worse than just a cold blooded killer – he is in fact the legendary terrorist ‘Carlos The Jackal’.

Half way through this series, it shifts from being a hard-ass thriller with arterial blood sprays to a Harlequin Romance movie-of-the-week; with slo-mo passion in front of a roaring log fire. And that’s the thing with this version of The Bourne Identity, it didn’t know who it’s audience was. At times I was really enjoying the show, and then it would veer off into a sentimental romance story. I guess they were trying to attract a female audience – which is empathsised further by the casting of Jaclyn Smith, who after her success in Charlie’s Angels carved out a career in large scale melodramtic mini-series. It’s a shame really, because this mini-series had something to offer, and that’s the really frustrating thing about it. If it was just plain crap, I could say ‘hey, this is crap’ and be done with it – wouldn’t have to give it a second thought. But this series just shows enough signs of being a great, intelligent series with an intriguing premise and fascinating characters, that one can’t help feeling that this was a missed opportunity. Sure we got the remake with Matt Damon, but as stated earlier, the Damon version, directed by Doug Liman, doesn’t really folow Ludlum’s book and it is an action film. The Bourne Identity should be a mystery film – he doesn’t know who he is or why people are trying to kill him. As it becomes more likely that he is Carlos The Jackal, the story takes another psycological turn. Liman’s version jettisons that whole subplot, and the emotional impact is muted. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 2002 version of Bourne, but it is a different beast to Ludlum’s story – and to this series.

This series has just enough going for it, that if you are a fan of Jason Bourne, then this series is worth viewing. I can’t really guess what most peoples reaction will be. As I said, I’m frustrated by it – but I started with the book. If you come from Liman’s film, you could be put off by it’s lack of pace, violence and action. But still…you know?

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The Bourne Identity (1988)

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