Movie Matchups: The Bourne Identity (2002) vs. Total Recall (1990)

You know how “I’ll be back” was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big catchphrase all through the ‘80s? Apparently he wasn’t just talking about coming back himself, but having plots from his movies reused. I’ll talk about a film that blatantly and goofily ripped off The Terminator another time, but for now I’ll talk about a film that excellently repeated the plot of another of Schwarzenegger’s big hits Total Recall (1990). The remake I’m referring to is, of course, The Bourne Identity (2002).

I would argue that The Bourne Identity is a better film than Total Recall for many reasons, one of the biggest being that the violence is toned down and yet more effective. When Jason Bourne stabs an assailant with a pen multiple times and then breaks his arm and leg, it feels positively shocking and brutal, plus it shows Bourne’s resourcefulness and how he ends a fight in the most efficient manner possible. On the other hand, when Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger’s character) fights people, he usually just shoots them or uses his brute force to overpower them. It’s not as exciting to watch because he feels more like a standard action hero. There are many other examples of things The Bourne Identity does better I could use, but I think this should suffice for now. We’ll likely find many more as we compare these two films.

So let’s tread lightly and leave no stone unturned as we remember wholesale all the things that The Bourne Identity has in common with Total Recall.


  • The hero starts out asleep.
  • He has no memory of his past life.
  • When he awakens from an ordeal, he attacks a medical attendant, and then passes out again.
  • He suddenly discovers brutal skills when threatened.
  • He has a device implanted in his body.
  • He gets into a fight with an assassin in his old apartment.
  • The villains’ motivations are vague, though they are explained in the end.
  • The hero meets a mysterious woman who warily helps him.
  • His memory partly returns by the end.
  • The villains get their comeuppance in creative ways.
  • The hero sets off on an uncertain but hopeful new life with his girlfriend.

Bad Dream

The hero is asleep at the start of the movie. Okay, we do see Quaid walking around on Mars with a then-unknown woman at the very start of Total Recall, but we quickly discover it’s a dream, possibly a memory. So it still counts. The very first thing we see in The Bourne Identity is Jason Bourne floating unconscious in a body of water. We don’t get to see what he’s dreaming about, but it’s probably not a pleasant dream considering that he was knocked out by a couple of bullets in his back, as we later learn.

Who Am I?

The hero struggles with the fact that he has no memory of his past life. Total Recall is set in the future when they have the technology to erase memories and replace them with elaborate ones that seem real. Even after Quaid sees a recording of his past self explaining a few things to his present self, he still has no clue what’s really going on. Bourne is terrified to discover that he’s lost any memory of his life before he was found floating in the Mediterranean. He doesn’t even know his name.

Up, Down, Up, Down

No, the title of this section isn’t part of the Konami code. It’s referring to the fact that the hero goes unconscious, awakens from an ordeal, attacks a medical attendant, then passes out again. Quaid is haunted by vague thoughts about Mars, so he eventually seeks out a company called Rekall to help him get some fake memories of being on Mars to sate his appetite. Unfortunately, they can’t implant new memories because he actually has been on Mars. The procedure backfires and Quaid wakes up kicking and screaming. The physicians are able to sedate him, though, and they toss him into a cab so he’ll be someone else’s problem.

Bourne is fished out of the water by a group of fishermen. One of them has some medical knowledge, so he removes the bullets from Bourne’s back and performs some other minor surgery while Bourne is unconscious. But Bourne suddenly wakes up and clumsily assaults the attendant. He’s still weak, and he quickly passes out again.

How Did I Do That?

When threatened, the hero instinctively displays deadly force. After the incident at Rekall, Quaid runs into some of his supposed friends who threaten to kill him because they think he remembers his true identity as a spy. Before they go through with it, though, he uses some deadly fighting moves to kill them all. Bourne faces a similar situation when he’s approached by two policemen for sleeping illegally on a park bench. There’s a nice touch in this scene where they’re speaking a foreign language and he doesn’t understand at first, but he surprises himself by saying a few words in their language. When they threaten him with a nightstick, his instincts kick into overdrive, and he knocks the officers unconscious and trains their own gun on them. In both cases, the hero takes a moment to show how horrified he is by what he just did.

The Implant

The hero has a piece of hardware implanted in his body, which is quickly removed. Quaid gets a briefcase from some random person he apparently used to know, and he finds a number of weapons and tools in it. He also finds a recording of himself relaying a little precious information. One tidbit is the fact that he has a homing device in his skull that he needs to remove. He does so in an extremely uncomfortable manner through his nose. Interestingly, in the Phillip K. Dick short story Total Recall is based on, Quail (his name was changed for the film to sound more macho) doesn’t remove the implant, but he uses it to communicate with his former bosses and cut a deal with them to allow him to live. Fun fact.

Bourne is unconscious when a device is removed from his hip. It’s not a tracking device, but it does contain the address of a Swiss Bank and an account number, which allows him to retrieve a case full of passports, weapons, and clues to his identity.

Friendly Fire

The hero gets into a fight with an assassin in his old apartment. After killing his former friends in an alley, Quaid hurries home and tells his wife what just happened. He packs a few things and prepares to head out, but he’s ambushed by his wife and has to subdue her after she shoots at him and then cuts him with a kitchen knife. Bourne heads to his apartment in Paris to see if he can find any more information there. However, another operative is waiting for him and he crashes through a window, guns a-blazing. Bourne disarms him, but then the intruder pulls out a knife, which Bourne also has to get away from him. In both cases, the bad guy first attacks the hero with a gun, then a blade.

Bad Guise

The villains’ motivations are kept vague throughout most of the film. The plot mostly consists of an underling villain pursuing the hero while the hero tries to figure out why he’s being pursued in the first place. A bad guy named Richter defies orders from his boss Cohaagen and tries to kill Quaid at every turn. Cohaagen wants Quaid brought in alive because he and Quaid actually devised a plan to erase Quaid’s memory and get him to innocently work his way into a group of rebels and get their leader killed. That’s actually a pretty clever plan, even if it’s a bit convoluted.

In The Bourne Identity, a CIA director who heads a secret project called Treadstone is in charge of bringing back Bourne to find out why he failed his last mission. But rather than doing that, he just sends agent after agent after Bourne to kill him. Honestly, this doesn’t make much sense. If he’s worked with Bourne for years, wouldn’t he want to get to the heart of the problem first before just seeing Bourne as a threat? Oh, well. It leads to many great action sequences, and it creates a lot of suspense, even if it doesn’t amount to much in the end.

Mysterious Love Interest

A mysterious woman decides to help the hero after some trepidation. It turns out that the woman we saw in Quaid’s dream at the start is a freedom fighter named Melina. Quaid meets up with her on Mars, and at first she’s not happy to see him because of something he can’t remember. But she decides to help him in the nick of time. Bourne ducks into an American Embassy to avoid some police where he meets a Gypsy named Marie. She’s having passport problems and needs money, so Bourne pays her thousands of dollars to drive him away from danger, he hopes. In both cases, the two become romantically involved by the end.

Sudden Recall

The hero’s memory partly returns by the end. In Total Recall, Quaid doesn’t really remember his former life, but he gets a shocking revelation in a video from his past self that he was actually working for the villains the whole time. In The Bourne Identity, Bourne confronts the Treadstone director and has painful flashbacks about his last mission. He couldn’t bring himself to kill his target, and he got shot in the back and sent over the edge of a yacht for his trouble.

The Inevitable Villain Deaths

The villains come to ironic ends. Reflecting director Paul Verhoeven’s penchant for gruesome imagery, the deaths in Total Recall are disgusting yet memorable. Richter fights Quaid on an elevator and tries to crush Quaid as they pass under a floor. But Quaid overpowers Richter and gets the floor to instead rip Richter’s arms off and make him fall to his death. In the final showdown, Cohaagen accidentally blows himself out an airlock and is exposed to the Mars atmosphere, making him suffocate. Ironically, he had cut off oxygen to the rebels in the Mars colony to try to kill them.

Just as a side note, I don’t understand why people say that Cohaagen’s death is what is supposed to happen to someone when exposed to the vacuum of space. Mars isn’t a vacuum. It has an atmosphere, albeit one that is much sparser than Earth’s. Wouldn’t someone just suffocate in an atmosphere that doesn’t have the right components for life? Just a thought.

Bourne escapes from the villains’ hideout, leaving a trail of bodies behind. The Treadstone director makes his way out, as well, and comes across one of his agents. But rather than being welcomed, he gets double-tapped in the head. It’s pretty shocking, but it makes sense within the context of the film. The senator above the Treadstone director wanted to get rid of all of the loose ends so he could avoid a scandal. In the next film, though, he kills himself when he’s about to be exposed.

Kiss Me Before You Wake Up

The hero sets off on an uncertain but hopeful new life with his girlfriend. Quaid activates an alien device that magically transforms the Mars atmosphere into a breathable one in seconds. He’s not sure if all of this is too good to be true, so he kisses Melina as the film fades out to a flash of light, possibly signifying that it really was all a dream. But if not, it means he has a bright future ahead of him.

When Bourne realizes that he’s responsible for many heinous murders, he decides he doesn’t want any part of it anymore. He makes a clean getaway and goes with Marie to some undisclosed location where they’ll be safe from his enemies, with any luck.

End of a Dream

I have to admit I’m embarrassed to admit I have actually seen Total Recall. Despite the positive marks it usually gets from critics, it really is a nasty movie full of unnecessary sex, violence, and (sometimes clever) one-liners. It’s packaged as a decent piece of entertainment, but that doesn’t change the fact that its components are mostly reprehensible.

Oddly enough, I don’t mind RoboCop, even though it seems like it should be on the same level as Total Recall. Somehow Alex Murphy’s plight has more emotional resonance than that of a trained killer who loses his memory. Maybe it’s because he’s a good guy caught up in a terribly unfair situation. I could devote a whole article to this topic.

For now, I’ll just say that even though The Bourne Identity has a lot in common with Total Recall, I really enjoy it. It has a good mix of fight scenes, chase scenes, and good old-fashioned suspense. It’s definitely one movie you shouldn’t forget.

This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.

All images are the copyright of their respective owners.

About Robert Lockard, the Deja Reviewer

Robert Lockard has been a lover of writing since he was very young. He studied public relations in college, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2006. His skills and knowledge have helped him to become a sought-after copywriter in the business world. He has written blogs, articles, and Web content on subjects such as real estate, online marketing and inventory management. His talent for making even boring topics interesting to read about has come in handy. But what he really loves to write about is movies. His favorite movies include: Fiddler on the Roof, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Back to the Future, Beauty and the Beast, The Fugitive, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight. Check out his website: Deja Reviewer. Robert lives in Utah with his wife and four children. He loves running, biking, reading, and watching movies with his family.
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15 Responses to Movie Matchups: The Bourne Identity (2002) vs. Total Recall (1990)

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  7. Lucy says:

    Just watched Total Recall for he first time and came to the same conclusion within 30min. Bourne Identity was definitely born out of Total Recall.


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