Independent-style edge meets international espionage in “The Bourne Identity,” a first-rate thriller with grit and intrigue to spare. With “Swingers” and “Go” director Doug Liman stepping up in a big way with his first big-budget major studio effort, this reworking of a 23-year-old Cold War spy novel by the late Robert Ludlum convinces on two levels: as an account of CIA ruthlessness that seems cold-bloodedly realistic rather than cheaply cynical, and as a character piece about an amnesia-afflicted agency assassin who doesn’t like what he learns when he finally realizes who he is. Matt Damon’s solo B.O. draw will be tested by this distinctively European-feeling suspenser, which may not be viewer-friendly enough for a portion of the mainstream Yank audience and will probably rack up mid-range rather than boffo domestic biz. International prospects look brighter, as do down-the-line ancillary returns.
Damon plays the thoroughly equivocal title character, a highly trained killing machine whose body, in the dramatic opening, is scooped out of the Mediterranean by some fishermen. Coaxed from the edge of death, the young man has two bullets in his back as well as a capsule encoded with a Swiss bank account number. Since he has no memory of who he is, where he lives or what he does, he gratefully accepts a handout from his rescuer and heads for Zurich.
What he finds in the safe deposit box throws him for a loop: multiple passports, including an American one identifying him as Jason Bourne, a gun and stacks of currency. Taking it all with him, he heads for the American consulate, where security goons move in on him and he narrowly escapes by hiring a ride to Paris from the attractively disheveled German “gypsy” Marie (Franka Potente) for $10,000.
But while Bourne can’t figure out why everyone’s after him, the audience is clued in early on. Back in Langley, CIA officer Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper), head of a top secret clandestine operation, is furious that Bourne has botched a hit on a former African leader who’s threatening to blackmail the agency. Now that the agent has resurfaced, he puts out the word: “I want Bourne in a body bag by sundown.”
Thus is the film put on track as a relentless chase, with killers every bit as tough and resourceful as Bourne himself regularly smashing through windows and taking surprise sniper shots, just as the French police repeatedly come within a hair of nailing him. Format provides as many opportunities for suspense set pieces, close calls and narrow escapes as one could want, but the spectacle of a runaway CIA assassin being hunted by his own creates an emotional dynamic of almost chilling ambivalence: On the one hand, a viewer almost automatically sympathizes with the central figure (especially a young and attractive one) in a drama pitting him against a sinister “them”; on the other hand, it’s never forgotten that Bourne, before his blown job, was fully one of “them.”
Although it would seem prudent for Marie to escape harm’s way by parting company with Bourne once they hit Paris, she proves useful to him on more than one occasion. And as the beset fellow has let down his guard with her as to his memory blank, she shortly feels emboldened to initiate some physicality with him, which he tenderly reciprocates. What could easily have been a hokey, cutesy or implausible (or all three) romance is given credible texture by not forcing it too much and just keeping Marie in the picture while both characters decide how far they want to take things. Offbeat casting of the sexy but not typically beautiful Potente is also a big help; she’s warm, earthy and sans actressy airs, and even has a fleck of “Run Lola Run” red left in her hair.
As the pressure mounts on Conklin to bring in his loose-cannon operative, Bourne gradually gleans more about himself, especially after the African politician is killed in a spectacular hit by another CIA gun (Clive Owen). Latter is inevitably then sent after Bourne, resulting in a fantastic sequence in which the two equally trained and ruthless men, who ostensibly work for the same team, stalk each other through woods and fields.
There’s more, as Conklin himself finally pursues Bourne to Paris, and the action-filled but bitter climax is entirely of a piece with what’s come before, dramatically, tonally and philosophically. Although a brief sun-drenched coda brightens matters in an only semi-plausible way at the very end, it does nothing to erase the consistency and coherence of a picture that succeeds in its evident aim to darkly recast the espionage genre for a new generation.
Working from a tight and dense script by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, Liman extends the bristling style he developed in “Go” in new directions here, as he fulfills traditional story expectations and does the requisite globetrotting without imposing stale conventions upon the audience. Camerawork by Oliver Wood is agile and always on the move (Liman did much of the operating himself), and terrific wintry locations in Paris, Prague and coastal Italy help bring the film to vibrant life. Action is intense, never more so than in a standout car chase through tiny Parisian back streets, alleys and even stairways, although Liman’s technique falls a bit short in the hand-to-hand combat scenes; helmer tends to cut with every hit and kick, rather than letting shots hold, resulting in disjointed coverage that hides much of what’s happening.
Acting is unusually fine for this sort of genre piece. Damon, for one, has never been this good. For the first time, actor doesn’t seem to care if the audience likes him or not, and while he will always be the most inescapably American-looking of all contempo actors, he has been induced to shed his wholesomeness and all traces of naivete to play a real hard case with deeply buried vestiges of a conscience and emotional reachability. He is also completely convincing in the scenes in which he is required to speak other languages well, notably French and German.
Cooper is outstanding as the pitiless CIA brain bedeviled by a vexing crisis, and Brian Cox supplies the needed gravitas as his concerned superior.
Nothing special is made of it, but rising star Julia Stiles puts in a surprise appearance in the very secondary part of Conklin’s secret point person in Paris. Working solo in a lonely safe house, this beautiful, smart Ivy League-type has somehow found her way into a strange, risky, sporadically exciting job at a very young age. Role is really a throwaway, but emphasizing it via such striking casting makes one imagine a film centered upon this woman, about how she got where she is and where she goes from here.
Techno-slanted score by John Powell is tremendously propulsive, combining with Potente’s presence to remind viewers at times of “Run Lola Run.” Yarn was dramatized once before, as a 1988 four-hour ABC miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith.