The Bourne Identity is based on a 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, the first of a Cold War-themed trilogy of spy novels centering around the character of Jason Bourne. The novel was previously adapted into a very 80s TV-movie starring Richard Chamberlain. The story has been retooled for a naughts audience and most of the Cold War aspects have been removed, though with all the European locations and jittery intelligence bureaucrats it can t help but have a few traces of the Reagan era.
(A brief side note: I think the first thing I ll comment on is the fact that The Bourne Identity is up against The Sum of All Fears – it s Affleck vs. Damon in the battle of the spy flicks! Over the last few years, as Affleck tried to become the next big action star in movies like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor (why one was a hit and the other a flop is beyond me, since both are dreadful and cheaply manipulative), Damon preferred to star in more touchy-feely flops like All The Pretty Horses and Bagger Vance, with the occasional Talented Mr. Ripley and Ocean s Eleven to maintain his credibility. The Bourne Identity represents Damon s first foray into the Big Action Flick (BAF), whilst Sum is only the latest in Affleck s attempts to co-opt the genre. Fortunately for viewers, neither film is a representative of that sub-genre of the BAF, the Big Dumb Action Flick, to which Armageddon and Pearl Harbor belong.)
For a spy movie the set-up is relatively simple. A French fishing boat comes upon a man (Damon) with no memory, excellent hand-to-hand combat skills and a Swiss bank account number sewed into his thigh. A trip to said bank reveals that the man is one Jason Bourne – along with several other identities. The rest of the film focuses on Bourne s quest to recover his memories and his true identity, as well as evading a number of shadowy assassins led by Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper), who runs whatever intelligence organization Bourne of which is/was a part.
The story is fairly standard spy stuff – nothing new here, not after decades of Bond movies. The look and feel of Bourne Identity is often similar to that of the first Mission Impossible movie, as Damon is hunted across Europe much as was Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.
The film s real strength is in the performances – in particular, the chemistry between Damon s Bourne and Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), the young woman he hires to drive him from Zurich to Paris for $20,000. Potente gives the role much more characterization and realism than it deserves, playing Kreutz as a girl trapped in a rather unlikely spy game. It s an understated performance, but you get the sense that Damon and Potente are two likable people (in real life as well as the film) stuck in a bad situation.
The action scenes are generally top-notch. It s a relief to see some normal chop-socky heroics in an age of slow-motion bullets and revolving camera angles. This may be a result of the film s relatively modest budget (for an action flick, anyway), but it may also be partly due to Liman himself, who doesn t exactly have a reputation for cinematic style (the overrated Swingers and Go were filmed a bit better than a Kevin (Dogma) Smith film, but not much better). This serves Bourne well; by getting rid of the stylish CGI tricks and ridiculous stunts, the film looks and feels more realistic (thereby heightening the tension and forging a better bond between the audience and the main characters).
That s not to say the film isn t without its faults. While the film features a breathless, well-directed car chase, it also drags inexplicably during certain action sequences (such as one where Bourne spends ten minutes climbing down a wall, and another where he and another spy duke it out in the midst of a grassy meadow). Liman still needs to work on his pacing (though he s miles beyond Swingers now).
The film resolves itself predictably and, naturally, a sequel is certainly possible – and one I would welcome, particularly if Potente is involved. The Bourne Identity is good, quality fun, like a Bond movie, and Damon is engaging enough to carry the franchise. If only they ll call the next one Bourne Again rather than the more staid title of Ludlum s sequel to the novel, The Bourne Supremacy.