Directed by by Doug Liman. Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Clive Owen, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Universal.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Recurring deadly gunplay and violence; brief sensuality and offscreen nonmarital sex; some strong language.
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The Bourne Identity (DVD & Blu-ray)
By Steven D. Greydanus
"I’m just trying to do the right thing here," Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) tells Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente, Run Lola Run).
Her cautious response: "Nobody does the right thing."
Jason Bourne is in no position to answer that. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t even know himself — not even his real name ("Jason Bourne" is only one of a string of identities on a pile of passports, all his, that he finds in a Zurich safety deposit box). Jason remembers nothing about his life prior to being fished out of the Mediterranean Sea by an Italian trawler with a pair of bullets in his back. Is that the sort of thing that happens to people who try to do the right thing?
Like the memory-impaired antihero of Memento, the protagonist of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (and a trilogy of Robert Ludlum novels before that) has no choice but to trust himself even though he can’t be sure he’s a trustworthy individual. Perhaps his honorable aspirations themselves are a good sign. Certainly the amazing abilities and instincts that suddenly surface when needed are clues to who and what he is. Jason may not know much, but he’s pretty sure he’s something out of the ordinary.
"I can tell you the license plates of all six cars in the parking lot," Jason tells Marie, a German drifter who gets caught up in his flight, as the two of them stop for a meal. "I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed, and the guy at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I can tell you that the best place to look for a gun is in the cab of the truck outside, and that at this altitude I can run flat out for 20 minutes before my hands start to shake. Now why would I need to know that?"
Whatever the reason for Jason’s extreme survival skills, that he needs them now is not in doubt. The Bourne Identity is essentially an extended chase movie, like The Fugitive, except that in this movie the Tommy Lee Jones figure (a malevolent Chris Cooper) isn’t a U.S. Marshall bent on capturing his target, but a shady CIA operative who wants to have him killed. Fortunately, Jason discovers himself to be a much more dangerous quarry than Harrison Ford’s Richard Kimble.
Another similarity between The Bourne Identity and The Fugitive: In both films the chase itself is more involving than anything motivating the chase. There’s some business here about a botched assassination attempt and secrets relating to CIA involvement in African politics; but none of that really matters much.
What does matter is Matt Damon negotiating his dangerous world purely by instinct and reflex while he struggles with questions about his unknown past. It’s the questioning, not the answers, that holds our attention. Indeed, as Jason puts the pieces together, he begins to feel that the truth about his past may be something he himself doesn’t want to know after all.
Shot on location in Paris, Zurich, and other European locales, The Bourne Identity looks and feels authentic. The fight scenes, too, aren’t sprawling action-movie slugfests, but brutally efficient and economical combat sequences that take the quickest route to ending the fight (only in the climactic scene does the film finally go over the top with a nastily implausible escape stunt). This isn’t a comic-book super-hero movie, nor is it a politically inspired techno-thriller. Espionage and violence provide the context, not the focus; the experiences and reactions of the protagonists, more than the particulars of what they have to do or why, are at the heart of the story.
To a large extent, then, the picture rests on the shoulders of stars Damon and Potente; and both deliver solidly. Damon succeeds not only in making his character a credible super-operative but also in humanizing him and making him sympathetic in spite of who and what he seems to be; while Potente is equally persuasive in conveying both the fear and the attraction Jason inspires in her character. Their relationship is credible and even involving, if deeply problematic.
The movie’s also funny, but never in a way that would detract from the sense of realism; there are no action-movie quips or one-liners here. Instead, for example, there’s the incongruity of a scene in which Jason choreographs an elaborate operation to get something he needs, only to have Marie sidestep his plan and achieve the goal with unexpected directness.
The Bourne Identity is well-made, intriguing entertainment. It might easily have aspired to be something more; but by the same token it could easily have wound up being something less. It sets medium-range goals for itself, and nails them solidly.