Loosely adapted by Tony Gilroy (2000's "Proof of Life
") and William Blake Herron from the 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, "The Bourne Identity" is a fast-paced, intriguing action-mystery that, nonetheless, doesn't shy away from moments of purposefully quiet tension. This characteristic places the picture squarely within the boundaries of the kind of thrillers that used to get made in the '70s, but have since become a dying breed. After a taut, top-notch first 80 minutes, however, director Doug Liman (1999's "Go
") loses his way as the plotting and action sequences grow more predictable and mundane.
The movie opens as a man (Matt Damon) is found wounded and floating atop the Mediterranean Sea. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Tracking down his stored belongings in a Zurich bank from the account number printed on his body, he is shocked to discover that, although his real name is Jason Bourne, he has a series of false passports, a large sum of cash from several different countries, and two guns. Jason soon finds himself, and a down-on-her-luck German woman named Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) whom he pays $20,000 to for driving him to his apartment in Paris, on the run from CIA agents. After seemingly botching his last job as an assassin working for them, the CIA, led by boss Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper), wants to wipe Jason out for good to save their own skin.
As an internationally-flavored, big-budget vehicle for Matt Damon (2001's "Ocean's Eleven
"), "The Bourne Identity" is a success. Unlike the miscalculated Ben Affleck-starrer "The Sum of All Fears
," "The Bourne Identity" avoids underestimating its audience and never completely strains credibility. Most refreshing is an opening thirty minutes that, with only roughly one minute total of dialogue, tells its story fully through the action of its lead character and the tightness of the screenplay.
The film only gets better with the appearance of Marie, played with an undeniable vivacious realism by Franka Potente (2001's "Blow
"). Marie first agrees to drive Jason purely for the money offered to her, but soon grows attracted and involved in his plight. The gentle romance that develops between Potente and Damon, whose performance is equally impressive, becomes the heart of the story without force-feeding it down the viewer's throat.
Several of the action scenes boast striking showmanship and technical ingenuity. A chase through the Zurich bank has a hair-raising payoff on the outside ledge of the building; a ruthless fight to the death amidst a deadened field of broken-down cornstalks pumps suspense into its every shot; and the inevitable car chase is the most exciting of its kind since 1998's "Ronin," which this film seems to have liberally borrowed from.
If everything moves with expert smoothness for the bulk of the running time, the last half-hour is a bit of a letdown. When Marie exits the story just before the climax, so does the intimately drawn human element that made Jason such a keen lead presence. The final shoot-out is especially disappointing as the movie resorts strictly to cliches without offering up anything new to the pot. It also leaves a several plot strands dangling in its aftermath.
If "The Bourne Identity" ultimately does not fulfill with the promise it so clearly had, it is still a strong summer entertainment with a rare brain in its head. The third film of its secret agent genre in as many weeks, this one ranks well ahead of "The Sum of All Fears
" and "Bad Company
," even if the general premise is one that didn't necessarily need to be told again. Luckily, with a well-played supporting cast of strong character actors, including Chris Cooper (1999's "American Beauty
"), Brian Cox (2001's "L.I.E."), and Julia Stiles (2001's "O
") in an otherwise mindbogglingly thin role, "The Bourne Identity" offers up enough crisp action setpieces, notable performances, and deliciously offbeat musical cues (by composer John Powell) to weather its myriad shortcomings.
©2002 by Dustin Putman