The Bourne Identity
Starring: Matt Damon, Franke Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Julia Stiles

Doug Liman

Writing credits: Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron
Distributor: Universal Pictures, 124 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
  (U.S. 2002)

Smart thrillers are in short supply these days, and summer films with adult appeal are rarer still. So perhaps we need to be thankful for the shrewd reimaginging of THE BOURNE IDENTITY, a cagey spy-versus-spy based on Robert Ludlum's 1980 pop-classic novel of the same name. Thankful, yes, and perhaps a little forgiving; while the film is a gripping experience, it's not a very deep or lasting one. But be gentle, I beg you: this film has aspirations to be both a whammo action blockbuster and an intelligent think piece, which is a delicate balance for any film to pull off. (I can only think of one espionage film in the last decade that achieved both with any success, and it was a remake -- the delectable Pierce Brosnan/Rene Russo version of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.)

Ably led by Matt Damon and sharply directed by Doug Liman, BOURNE is my definiton of what a family film should be: spectacular action sequences for the kids, an intelligent and involving premise for us older folk, a directorial pace that rarely allows anyone to wonder what time it is, and just enough (offscreen) sex to keep things interesting.

Liman and Damon have made a sublimely structured entertainment out of Ludlum's complex character, without dumbing him down significantly. But truthfully, THE BOURNE IDENTITY doesn't hold up under heavy scrutiny -- scenes that seem so bracing when watching the film are actually just time-tested thriller cliches, elements that have stoked audiences time and time again. These moments are stolen from everywhere: assassins pitted against one another brings to mind many a Bond flick, a brilliant car chase recalls The French Connection, etc. No, with THE BOURNE IDENTITY, best to leave your tough-critic side at home, and enjoy the many ephemeral, transitory pleasures Mr. Liman has created in this meatier-than-usual summer feast.

Credit Matt Damon for taking a risk -- following his supporting turn in the no-brainer OCEAN'S ELEVEN, this isn't the easiest way to launch a career as an action star. Consider: he's taking on a character that he's probably too young to play, in an adaptation of a beloved book with a near-rabid fan base, with no major co-stars and an indie director who's never been tested on a studio project. On paper, this must have seemed like the Hollywood equivalent of bungee jumping off the Grand Canyon.

But the quietly burning aura Damon invokes as Jason Bourne, the tortured amnesiac who can't remember his former career as a CIA operative, is dead-on perfect. Bourne is a fascinating character: on a journey of self-discovery, he is tormented by the things he finds. As moral crisis goes, it's pretty engaging; his "am-I-a-monster" frustration moves the entire film into a higher realm. (Indeed, Bourne's palpable magnetism allows the story to sail over rather substantial gaps in plausibility and coherence.) In short, Damon delivers the goods -- he may not be a Gibson or a Cruise yet, but he proves that he can carry a film on his beefed-up shoulders.

No less successful is director Liman, who makes a surprisingly assured change-of-pace. With only two arthouse hits under his belt -- the sassy romantic comedy SWINGERS and the careening ensemble piece GO -- Liman seems quite confident with the needs of his nimble action flick. Unlike most action directors, Liman is aware of the power of silences -- what isn't said is often more important that what is said, and quiet moments of confusion make up THE BOURNE IDENTITY's best scenes. The opening ten minutes of the film, for instance, shows Bourne being found unconscious and floating in the Atlantic Ocean...and contains virtually no dialogue. Instead, Liman uses the visual nature of cinema -- stolen glances, ruffled brows, indelible images -- to push his narrative forward.

Bourne tries to discover his real identity, all the while pursued by his former colleagues who want him dead, for reasons unknown. He bribes a young German woman, Marie (Run Lola Run's Franka Potente) to drive him out of a sticky situation. (The car chase, incidentally, is nearly worth the price of admission alone.) Before long, however, they are both caught in an ever-widening conspiracy that threatens to engulf them both.

Excellent supporting turns abound: Potente balances uncertainty and willfulness with a mastery beyond her years, while Chris Cooper (American Beauty, Lone Star) gives a savage reading as Bourne's self-serving CIA boss. Brian Cox (L.I.E.) and Julia Stiles (Save The Last Dance) each take small supporting roles and turn them into gold, further indications that Liman and Company are on the right track.

Purists and perfectionists will have a field day ripping apart THE BOURNE IDENTITY. But viewers looking for a good Saturday night flick are going to go home happy. For once (and only once), I'll side against the purists. So what if you think you've seen some of this before? So what if the film bounces around European settings like a road company of Goldfinger? THE BOURNE IDENTITY isn't great, by a long stretch. But it stands as the most accomplished actioner of 2002 that didn't include a man shooting webs out of his hands, and for what that's worth, it's something to see.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2002 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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