Directed by Doug Limon & written for the screen by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Henry, from the novel by Robert Ludlum
118 min PG13
“The Bourne Identity” is like a stone skipped across a pond. It’s an impressive trick, it goes by pretty fast, and it never sinks below the surface. Its trappings include espionage, amnesia, politics, brainwashing, and some interesting assumptions about how our culture sees all these things now. But, as a late summer movie, really it’s just two more people running from danger and bad guys in exotic locations. Two is a good number because more than that makes things complicated and fewer than that means a guy talking to himself for ninety minutes. They’re not exactly ingenuous but at least they’re clever enough to not solve every problem with guns. Because the movie is slick and well-acted, I enjoyed watching it. But it’s no groundbreaker and I’m not exactly waiting for its sequel with baited breath.
A man (Matt Damon) with amnesia is found floating in the Mediterranean with nothing but the clothes on his back and an account number at a Swiss bank. In this bank is money, a gun, and piles of passports. He picks the name Jason Bourne because that passport is the one on top. His memories are gone, but all his instincts are still in tact. This is not farfatched, I guess: stroke victims often lose the ability to do long division but can still multiply because most people learn their multiplication tables by rote. His instincts include martial arts, spycraft, climbing sheer walls, driving fast, all the good European languages, and sharpshooting. This is fortunate because people are trying to kill him at every turn. Soon we’re cutting among mean CIA bosses (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox), a deposed African puppet dictator (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Bourne’s flight across gay Paris. Oh yeah, and he grabs a girl (Franka Potente of “Run Lola Run”) along the way.
Did I say slick? Europe hasn’t looked this cold and blue since “Ronin.” “The Bourne Identity” is grey, metallic, and snowy, all good colors for when the world is out to get you. Silencers go “thwip,” knives go shink, windows shatter, the score goes “boom-chick boom-chick” whenever necessary, and we see through sniper scopes. Coooool. Bourne’s chosen martial art is—according to the DVD—this thing called Kali, from Thailand. Yes, Kali, just like the Hindu goddess of death, and it’s all about dropping bad guys real fast in as few moves as possible. He drops one slimebag with a ballpoint pen. A good fight scene is like ballet that boys can enjoy: the thrill of kinesis and the beauty of the human body in motion, except people get hurt and there are winners and losers. Damon’s Bourne does beat up a lot of guys, but he does outsmart them too. There’s also a car chase which, after “Ronin,” “The Italian Job,” and “The Transporter,” is nothing special.
The strength of the movie is its cast and its character-first approach over the action. Everyone in “The Bourne Identity” brings an intensity and sincerity to his role. Damon’s Bourne is always pushing forward, stoic, and without a wasted word or movement. Under stress he’s as calm and efficient as ever, even to the point of viciousness, and makes an interesting counterpoint to Damon’s Tom Ripley. Chris Cooper is an actor who can do no wrong; he makes every character he plays and room where he sits look broken-in and natural. Clive “Coolest Living Welshman” Owen also pops up as a robotic assassin who speaks only when absolutely necessary. Good action characters lately are still heartless killing machines with quick movements, but they’ve become more open to having scared eyes during a crisis and heavy breathing when everything’s done. As for Franka Potente as The Girl, I loved her in “Run Lola Run” but I was never really convinced that she would join Bourne on his trans-Europe adventure.
“The Bourne Identity” reveals much of our cynicism about modern intelligence. In the days of Hitchcock and the early Bond films, the competing ideologies of good (capitalist democracies) and bad (Commies or Nazis, whichever) are never examined. We were right, they were wrong, now let’s fight. 007 may be cynical and worldly, but he is never disillusioned about his cause. With movies like “The Bourne Identity” and “Mission: Impossible 2,” the espionage system is inherently corrupt, driven by wrong-headed self-righteousness. We no longer believe that “the better world” spies are fighting to make is a world we want to live in. The climax of “MI2,” and I paraphrase Chris Jackson at Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture, consists of two virtually identical and interchangeable white men in black suits (Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott) fighting it out over a biracial woman (Thandie Newton). The superpowers fight over the Third World, but does it matter which wins? (Does it matter for whom we vote in the next election? How’s that for cynicism?)
In “The Bourne Identity,” the CIA is trying to kill Bourne because he failed to assassinate a puppet dictator they put in power and then removed from power when he was no longer useful. As Homer Simpson said about Oedipus Rex, “who pays for that wedding?” Again and again, Bourne declares that he works for “no one” and is on “his own side.” Evil CIA stooge Chris Cooper is framed to include American flags and standing in front of his office’s photo of George W. Subtle, yes, but one always wonders if a mainstream film’s cynicism is sincere or if ambivalence allows the movie to play in as many markets as possible. The last spy movie that took a real stand was “The Tailor of Panama.” It has no bones about showing Americans as paternal imperialists out to run the world, the British as irrelevent and meddling Cold War leftovers, and the Third World as trying their damnedest to alternately manipulate and ignore these two clumsy giants to clean house and get things done.
Listening to the commentary, before the Netflix DVD broke, I admire so many of director Doug Liman’s (“Swingers,” “Go”) decisions, his preference of character over action, his choice of letting Bourne’s entire character be influenced by the no-wasted-movement approach of Kali. Listening to the commentary I kept saying “yes, but…” “yes, but…” Was I gripped? Kind of. Enough to watch it once. It’s a shallow diversion, but if that’s what you’re in the mood for, have at it. I can’t imagine anyone owning “The Bourne Identity” on DVD or needing to see it twice.
Finished August 1st, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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