When The Bourne Identity opened in US theaters on June 14, 2002, it was the end of a long, arduous process: the film was originally scheduled for September 2001 but was delayed because of extensive reshoots (which cost director Doug Liman the invitation to return for the sequels), including a need to retool the movie for post-9/11 audiences. There were also doubts about its commercial prospects, due to the dated nature of the source material and the perceived lack of star power associated with the leading actor, one Matt Damon. And yet, that is exactly what the movie needed, as proven by its $214 million gross and the lucrative franchise it spawned.
In that sense, the movie was an indirect response to The Sum of All Fears, released a few weeks earlier: based on reliably successful literary material (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels), that film tried to reinvent the CIA analyst by depicting him as a younger man, played by Ben Affleck, Damon’s writing partner and childhood friend. After reveling in their shared Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay in 1998, Affleck had fully embraced the movie star persona: by 2002, he had headlined two Michael Bay films, was about to star in a Philip. K Dick adaptation directed by John Woo and had also been cast as a Marvel superhero (Daredevil).
Conversely, Damon played the long game, opting for supporting roles in films by major directors (Saving Private Ryan, Ocean’s Eleven) and starring in prestige pics rather than blockbusters. Even the mandatory voice work in an animated film was – relatively – more niche than the industry standard (he did the horse’s inner monologue in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron). He was interested in honing his craft instead of his perceived bankability, and to this day he largely avoids bigger movies: when Marvel knocked on his door, it was for the hilariously throwaway role of a stage actor playing Loki in Thor: Ragnarok.
In fact, when he ended up in two hit franchises at the same time, he actively sought to avoid overexposure: on the set of Ocean’s Twelve, he asked Steven Soderbergh for a reduced role. The director responded by doing the exact opposite, while also throwing in an inside joke about Damon’s character wanting a more prominent spot within the group.
Which brings us back to The Bourne Identity: while Ryan came with dual cinematic baggage (Affleck was filling shoes previously worn by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford), Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin was pretty much uncharted territory (a 1988 TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain didn’t make much of an impression, although it did earn a visual throwback in the third film). He was a malleable character that could be used to mold a new star – someone who, much like Jason Bourne, was trying to figure out his place in the world, while also trying to not draw too much attention to himself.
To quote the Italian title of the source novel, Bourne is a name without a face: someone who blends in and disappears before you even know he was there. And so, while it is inevitable that the studio would consider higher-profile leads, it never really made sense to cast someone like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. It had to be Damon, an actor with the required Hollywood pedigree but without the burden of recognizable stardom.
This becomes even more evident in the sequels, where the parallel between character and actor evolves in interesting ways: just as Jason proves increasingly efficient while loathing his darker persona, Damon displays a certain confidence that goes hand in hand with some residual discomfort. The character is an anomaly, as is his portrayer. Which might also explain why Damon remains pretty much unscathed in a Hollywood landscape where brands and IP are the new stars: his unassuming manner and eclectic career choices (the same year he debuted as Bourne, he also starred in and co-wrote Gus Van Sant’s Gerry) have enabled him to thrive without the need for a red carpet and large, adoring crowds. He’s there precisely when he needs to be, and then he returns to being just another broadly talented face. Only in real life, his days don’t end with Moby’s “Extreme Ways.” Or do they?