Bourne Identity, The (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In all likelihood, Robert Ludlum fans will not be pleased by this adaptation of one of the spy master's best-received novels. That's because The Bourne Identity uses the premise, a few character names, and some isolated incidents from the novel, then runs off in its own direction. This film has less in common with its print inspiration than The Sum of All Fears, but, considering the inherent differences between books and movies, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The divergence allows The Bourne Identity's cinematic incarnation to be judged on its own strengths and weaknesses, without being repeatedly compared to the book - a problem that the 1988 mini-series had. That production (which starred a wooden Richard Chamberlain) made the mistake of trying to be faithful to Ludlum's text; consequently, events had a rushed feel, as if too much had been crammed into four hours. However, this version of The Bourne Identity is nicely paced and fits the bill for those in search of two hours of spy-based action and martial arts. The movie has credibility issues, but none are insurmountable in the name of entertainment.

The Bourne Identity doesn't have much of a story to speak of - the plot is a jumping-off point and a means to keep things rolling from one action sequence to the next. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a CIA assassin who loses his memory after a failed mission that results in him being shot twice and left floating in the ocean. However, while Jason doesn't know exactly who (or what) he is, he recognizes that someone is after him, and his training kicks in. That "someone" is his boss, Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper), who sees Bourne as a loose end that has to be eliminated. Jason meets Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), a German wanderer who leaps at the chance to earn $20,000 by driving Jason to his Paris apartment. Once there, however, they encounter hit men and dead bodies, and Jason decides that the only way to save himself is to find out who he is and why someone wants him dead.

Although it would be a stretch to call Matt Damon a perfect spy - there are times when his underplaying causes him to come across as emotionless - he's more credible in the action hero role than his friend, Ben Affleck. If it came down to Damon's Bourne versus Affleck's Jack Ryan, my money would be on the former. Not only is he more buff, but he's got some cool moves. Damon generates a little nice chemistry with on-screen love interest Franka Potente, who has been getting a fair amount of international exposure since Run Lola Run. In fact, considering the pacing and high level of action in this film, The Bourne Identity could easily be called Run Jason Run.

At any rate, it's tension of the action-oriented variety, not the romantic one, that drives The Bourne Identity. While the movie pays lip service to solving the "mystery" of Jason's identity, this is pretty much a red herring. We figure things out early in the proceedings, so there are no surprises around the corner. The real question posed by the screenplay is how Jason will survive the hit men sent after him, especially the deadly Professor (Clive Owen), who seems to be his equal. In addition to a number of high-octane fight scenes and some cat-and-mouse games, the movie contains a lengthy car chase through the streets of Paris. And, while this one is a little more exciting than the average high-speed pursuit, it doesn't offer enough that's new, daring, or heart-pounding, and, as a result, seems a little too long and drawn-out.

The Bourne Identity is directed by Swingers helmsman Doug Liman, who proves himself to be capable of generating and sustaining suspense. He starts out early by using point-of-view shots to develop a sense of paranoia as Jason awakens and tries to assess the unfamiliar world around him. Liman occasionally returns to that trick throughout the film whenever he feels that putting us into Jason's shoes will ratchet up the tension. It works particularly well during a scene in Jason's Paris apartment when the first hit-man makes his appearance. Through Jason, we sense he's coming, but his appearance is nevertheless startling.

On some level, I guess The Bourne Identity could be considered a throwback. There are not many pure action thrillers out there these days. This movie does not rely on special effects or science fiction-like plot elements to get by. It's a straightforward story of good guys against bad guys, with most of the moral ambiguities leeched out. (For example, Liman doesn't expect us to be overly concerned with Jason's past as a ruthless killer. That's another lifetime - because of his amnesia, Jason has been "bourne again".) No matter who comes out on top, this is the kind of movie where the audience - at least an audience looking for 120 minutes of adrenaline-propelled escapism - wins.

Bourne Identity, The (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2002-06-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1