Imagine awakening one morning and finding yourself suddenly blessed not only with nerves of steel and fluency in several languages, but also the action reflexes of Bruce Lee, the driving skills of Michael Schumacher and the climbing ability of Spider-Man.
There are, however, a number of catches:
You wake up not in your own bed, but in an Italian fishing boat in the Mediterranean after being pulled from the stormy water with two bullets in your back; everyone in Europe who wears a uniform, and numerous people who do not, are seriously trying to capture and/or kill you; oh yes, you have complete amnesia and have no idea who you are, how those enviable skills came to be yours or why any of this is happening to you.
That’s the premise of “The Bourne Identity,” a tiptop espionage thriller starring Matt Damon that takes this crackerjack premise and runs with it. Based loosely on the 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum that was filmed for TV in 1988 with Richard Chamberlain in the lead, this is an entertainment that really entertains because any number of interesting and unexpected choices were made, starting with the selection of Doug Liman as the director.
One of the bright lights of independent filmmaking, Liman was an unusual pick to do the kind of major-studio secret agent movie that usually ends up as stodgy and arteriosclerotic as “Spy Game.”
Liman is so jazzed at the opportunity to bring his outsider sensibility to mainstream material that he’s been able to treat the story like it’s spanking new. He has successfully fused elements of both his previous features, the charming character-driven “Swingers” and the overreaching but still vivid “Go,” onto this production.
“The Bourne Identity” gets its initial impetus from a well-constructed screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron that takes the film’s fairly straight-forward plot and keeps it nicely streamlined and surprising enough to be involving. (Though the film had well-publicized script problems, they are not visible in the finished product.)
The man who wakes up on the boat (Damon) has but a single clue to who he is: a mechanism, implanted in his hip, that displays a Swiss bank account number. He travels to Zurich to check it out and discovers not only an American passport that tells him he’s Jason Bourne, but also a veritable U.N.'s worth of papers in other names from other countries. Plus a whole lot of money. And a gun.
Though Bourne is still in the dark about the details of his identity, the film--through glimpses of distraught spymasters Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper) and Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) at CIA headquarters--has already let us in on the secret. Bourne is a top Company assassin, part of a hush-hush project called Treadstone, but his lack of success in his last job has so compromised this super-clandestine world that Conklin feels compelled to insist, “I want Bourne in a body bag by sundown.”
With no idea why everyone is chasing him, Bourne makes an accidental connection with Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente, the Lola of “Run Lola Run”), a beautiful young vagabond with a tiny red Austin Mini Cooper who--for a tidy sum--agrees to drive him to Paris. There, circumstances conspire to keep them together as Bourne attempts to survive the nonstop attempts on his life, as well as piece together exactly what that life consists of.
In Liman’s hands, this potentially overly familiar scenario takes on unexpected sparkle. For one thing, the director, occasionally serving as his own camera operator (and working with cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Saar Klein), is so good at the mechanics of action that they don’t feel like mechanics. Laced with great shock moments, “Bourne” moves along smartly on its own steam, drawing us confidently into its orbit.
Equally essential is the way Liman and his actors have used intense but low-key line readings to infuse a sense of reality onto these proceedings, to make this a character-driven story about young people we might know caught in a situation we can barely imagine.
With Cooper, Cox and Julia Stiles as the CIA folks and Clive Owen as a rival assassin, “Bourne” is notably well-cast in its subsidiary roles, but especially successful is the pairing of Damon as an earnest would-be teddy bear who can’t understand why he’s a killing machine and Potente as the woman who’s attracted to him against her better judgment.
Although interpersonal relationships in espionage films often can’t get beyond the emotional opaqueness of James Bond, the interplay here is surprisingly human. Bourne and Marie have a rapport that’s tentative and tender; they are hesitant with each other because they’re inescapably lost and confused. It’s a small touch but a vital one, and it underlines why “The Bourne Identity” commands our attention and our respect.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence and some language. Times guidelines: The violence is intense but not gratuitous.
‘The Bourne Identity’
Matt Damon ... Bourne
Franka Potente ... Marie
Chris Cooper ... Conklin
Clive Owen ... The Professor
Brian Cox ... Ward Abbott
A Hypnotic and Kennedy/Marshall production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Doug Liman. Producers Doug Liman, Patrick Crowley, Richard N. Gladstein. Executive producers Frank Marshall, Robert Ludlum. Screenplay Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum. Cinematographer Oliver Wood. Editor Saar Klein. Costumes Pierre-Yves Gayraud. Music John Powell. Production design Dan Weil. Art director Laurent Piron. Set decorator Alexandrine Mauvezin. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.