If John LeCarre wrote spy novels for the head, Robert Ludlum aimed for the gut.
Ludlum's plots may have been no less intricate than those of his British counterpart, but the recently deceased American author preferred to propel readers through his vast conspiracy scenarios by way of a muscular prose heavy on feel-the-pain description and clipped sentences, as in: "He broke surface, thrashing to stay on top of the black swells. Climb up! Climb up!"
Prior to tackling one of Ludlum's best and most popular novels, 1980's "The Bourne Identity," director Doug Liman had proven himself capable of zipping audiences through a complicated joy ride himself, albeit on an indie-film scale.
Many of Liman's strengths in the overcaffeinated shaggy-dog story "Go" (1999) are on display again in "The Bourne Identity": his use of dramatic pauses before unexpected bursts of action, his way of shooting and editing a car chase so you feel the speed and peril, his ability to give a picture flash without making it resemble a music video.
Yet "The Bourne Identity" is no mere summer amusement park ride. It's as gray as "Go" was colorful and a cool contrast to its source material. You read the novel - as I did 20 years ago - in a disoriented swirl as you try to get a handle on the lethal amnesiac protagonist while the bullets whiz past your ears.
The approach of Liman and Matt Damon, who plays Jason Bourne, is more consciously restrained. The movie takes time to breathe.
Bourne is discovered floating in the Mediterranean Sea with bullet holes in his back, and when he awakens, he can't remember who he is. Yet he has not lost his extremely well-honed survival instincts: He can disarm and disable cops with a few quick moves, and with no conscious effort he can identify every possible threat in a diner while mentally recording license plate numbers of the cars outside.
The story's central question is: Who is this guy? A capsule is found sewn into his hip, and - in a neat little effect - it beams out the numbers of a secret Zurich bank account. There, in a safety-deposit box, Bourne finds gobs of money and multiple passports bearing his visage and various names.
Which identity, if any, is the real one? Is he a spy? A free-lance assassin? A terrorist? A plain ol' killer? These questions have more urgency in the book, as Bourne and the reader are tormented by the possibility that the protagonist may be a really bad guy. Liman and the script, credited to Tony Gilroy ("Proof of Life") and William Blake Herron (the shooting script is said to be primarily Gilroy's), reduce this tension early on by offering scenes from the point of view of the shady U.S. government officers trying to track down their rogue secret agent, Bourne.
The filmmakers undercut more drama by having Bourne, the moment he awakens on the boat that fished him out, violently confront the doctor treating him. By playing this card so early, they remove the surprise of his powerful reaction to cops who try to roust him from a park bench. Meanwhile, Damon has Bourne reacting without great shock or agitation over the discovery of his talents, no doubt to show how innately steely the character is.
Liman and the writers' oddest choice may be the elimination of Carlos, the book's all-powerful terrorist baddie (based on a real-life figure who was apprehended years after the novel came out). The novel's Cold War dynamics may have needed updating for a contemporary thriller, but without Carlos the movie lacks a strong villain and loses the entertaining notion that Bourne rarely knows which hostile party is chasing him.
The only significant heavies here are a bureaucrat named Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper, beginning to resemble Harvey Keitel) and his CIA-offshoot minions trying to neutralize Bourne. The movie's U.S. project, called Treadstone, centers on an embarrassing failed assassination of an African leader named Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), leading to some by-the-numbers cinematic cynicism over such covert operations.
"The Bourne Identity" is a gripping thriller anyway. Damon may not be one of your beefier action heroes, yet he has the physical presence to make the fight scenes and danger-dodging more than credible.
He's also an actor who allows you to see what he's thinking without making a big show, which fits Liman's conception of Bourne as a guy who survives more by brainpower than bullets. Bourne, in fact, keeps ditching guns in favor of such items as a fire-exits map posted in a hallway; he's not one of these clairvoyant movie daredevils.
Franka Potente ("Run Lola Run"), an unconventional beauty with an almost boyish face and earthy sex appeal, proves an inspired choice to play Marie, the Zurich woman whom Bourne entices to drive him to Paris. Clive Owen puts his piercing dark eyes and sculpted cheekbones to effective use as an assassin who could use more screen time. (He'd still make an excellent James Bond.) Julia Stiles, meanwhile, does the little she's required to do as Treadstone's Paris coordinator, but you keep wondering: What is Julia Stiles doing here?
Liman packs enough firepower into "The Bourne Identity" to please the summer action fan, including a reshot climax that contains one of the niftier stunts I've seen recently. The centerpiece action sequence is a bravura car chase through Paris, yet the moments that bookend it are equally impressive.
Beforehand, Bourne is sitting in the car with Marie while cops slowly approach from all sides. He offhandedly asks questions about how the car handles, reaches in the back for a map, and kindly tries to persuade her to exit the car and leave behind the looming peril. Instead, she simply buckles her seat belt. Without a dramatic gesture made or wisecrack uttered, they're off.
Immediately afterward, Bourne and Marie sit silently in the car, and Liman lets the camera linger on them as their faces register exhaustion and amazement at what they've just experienced. They're worn out and not a little turned on. We share the feeling.
"The Bourne Identity"
Directed by Doug Liman; written by Tony Gilroy, William Blake Herron; based on the novel by Robert Ludlum; photographed by Oliver Wood; edited by Saar Klein; production designed by Dan Weil; music by John Powell; produced by Liman, Patrick Crowley, Richard N. Gladstein. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, June 14. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, some language).
Jason Bourne - Matt Damon
Marie - Franka Potente
Conklin - Chris Cooper
The Professor - Clive Owen
Ward Abbott - Brian Cox Wombosi - Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.