Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Julia Stiles, Brian Cox

MPAA Rating: PG-13  (for violence and some language)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 6/14/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The Bourne Identity is a European travelogue spy movie through and through. The main character travels from scenic locale A to scenic locale B and perhaps along the way is delayed for a few minutes to participate in a fight or a car chase. An attractive companion accompanies him so that, no matter how close the bad guys may get, he can let his guard down long enough for a romance to bloom. The twist to this fairly usual setup is that our hero has no idea that he is a spy. He has amnesia—the kind that keeps you from knowing your own name but conveniently allows you to recall every European language. I won’t question the medical accuracy of such a condition so as to give Robert Ludlum, who penned the novel on which the movie is based, the benefit of the doubt. It would be useless to challenge the scenario anyway, because the entire story depends on it. However, disputing the success of a story that’s beating an already well-worn path is certainly worthwhile.

A fishing boat from Italy discovers the body of a man (Matt Damon) floating out at sea. The man was shot twice in the back and had a laser projector sewn into his hip. The projector displays the name of a bank in Switzerland and an account number. The man soon awakes and discovers he has no memory of who he is or what happened to him. To unravel the mystery, the man heads to Switzerland where he surprises himself by taking down two police officers who try to arrest him. At the bank he finds that he owns a safety deposit box which contains his identification; his name is Jason Bourne. He also finds a second compartment in the box which holds passports from other countries with various identities, large sums of currency from around the globe, and a gun. Leaving the gun but taking the rest, Bourne dodges Swiss police by ducking into the American embassy but still finds himself chased by security there. Escaping the building, he recruits a woman he saw in the embassy named Marie (Franka Potente) to drive him to the Paris address on his identification for $20,000.

Who is after Bourne and why? We already know the answer has to do with the CIA and a failed assassination attempt on a former dictator who has incriminating information on the agency’s involvement in Africa. As Bourne starts his quest to discover everything the audience already knows, he comes across a series of action sequences. Specifically, we are offered the embassy escape, a fight with a fellow agent, a car chase through the streets of Paris, a cat and mouse game in an open field of very tall grass, and a shootout in an apartment building’s stairwell. Each of them is crafted well and offers enough variety to keep the action from becoming repetitive and dull. Director Doug Liman, best known for the Gen-X relationship comedy Swingers and the Pulp Fiction-imitator Go, manages to keep the sequences fresh by avoiding the standard clichés. Bourne is acting on instinct, and each decision he makes does feel improvised. In the fist fight, devoid of any kind of weapon, Bourne grabs a pen; before the car chase begins, he quickly examines a road map—perhaps committing it to memory. Once the chase begins, thankfully there’s nary a fruit cart in sight.

It’s in the scenes between the action that the movie shows its wear. Here the plot inevitably exhibits the trappings of so many other movies that have come before it. Keeping the story moving is the first priority of the screenplay, so there are few opportunities to allow much depth to develop. Most of that time is spent establishing the romance, which is admittedly better than most although the entire concept itself (unless really delved into) is past its prime. Hunting Bourne are a group of CIA spooks who travel and fight Bourne alone, which is about as smart as a group of enemies taking turns to fight the hero in a martial arts movie. Heading the operation is the underused and under-appreciated character actor Chris Cooper, turning in a fine performance as the hard-nosed leader. The strong point of the non-action scenes is the gradually escalating internal conflict that takes over Bourne as he learns the truth. Matt Damon is strong as Bourne in both the action and in-between scenes.

Once Bourne comes to discover the truth, the surprise is how uninteresting it is. The final confrontation leads to the back story, and everything is as we had perceived it to be. It’s actually quite a letdown after all the time spent speculating on what really happened and wanting this character to discover something beyond what he essentially already knows. Would a giant twist in the finale elevate The Bourne Identity above its familiar roots? I have a feeling it would still be a close-to-solid espionage thriller with the misfortune of being released a few decades too late.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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