The Bourne Identity

They are the hero in all great works of espionage fiction, the super spy who is invisible to all but a few, the guy you send in when you want the job done right, fast, and with complete discretion. Of course these phantom agents only exist in fiction, right?

That’s what CIA agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) believes when he’s plucked out of the Mediterranean by a fishing boat. Suffering from amnesia, traces of a former life ricochet through his brain. The only solid clue to his existence is a small tube containing a Swiss bank account number surgically inserted into his hip.

Based on the 1980 Robert Ludlum page turner, “The Bourne Identity” may be fiction, but is presented with such conviction that it is impossible not to get caught up in the film. Directed by Doug Liman from a crisp screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, “The Bourne Identity” is as smart, cunning, charming and deadly as the character of Jason Bourne.

Matt Damon is convincing as a man whose future is as clouded as his past. Damon brings great uncertainty to Bourne, who slowly regains his instincts as an agent. He can’t understand why everyone seems to want him dead. Bourne hopes that the contents of the Swiss account will yield some clues, but they make his identity even more of a mystery.

The writers give us a little credit for being able to get it without being preached to. They cleverly toss aside story exposition, forcing the audience to pay closer attention. Like the character of Bourne, we’re only given little pieces of the puzzle. Then the writers do something perspicacious.

They show us another point of view, this one from inside the offices of the CIA, where the agent in charge of the mission, Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper) has quickly assembled a crack team of operatives to hunt down Bourne and eliminate him. Like a great Hitchcock film, we have the information Bourne needs, but are helpless to do anything about it.

The writers do an outstanding job of layering the complex plot so just enough information leaks out. Liman is such a master of character development he wisely grounds the film with strong performances that serve as an excellent counterweight for the film’s bristling action and intrigue. The banter between the characters sounds like the real thing, not grandiose manufactured speeches guaranteed to attract top talent.

Damon, who exposed his dark side in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” injects Bourne with unwavering confidence and roguish charm, making it easy for us to believe that he could convince a beautiful stranger named Marie (the inviting Franka Potente) to drive him from Switzerland to Paris for twenty thousand dollars, no questions asked.

Marie is hesitant to accept the offer, but as a gypsy and free soul wandering from country to country, she’s flat broke and desperately needs the cash. It’s not long before the CIA, the International Police and a handful of hired assassins are hot on their trail, forcing Bourne to outwit them while trying to unravel his identity.

“The Bourne Identity” reminded me of the great spy thrillers of the seventies like “Marathon Man” and “Three Days of the Condor,” with which this film shares similar plot threads. In “Condor,” Robert Redford is a CIA book reader whose unit is mysteriously killed and he’s left out in the cold. In order to avoid trained assassins, he kidnaps a woman (Faye Dunaway) and uses her place as a hideout until he can learn the truth.

Even if some of the plot threads are familiar, Liman makes them his own. The director of “Swingers” and “Go” keeps things up close and personal, so even car chases become claustrophobic. Thanks to Oliver Wood’s intense photography, the film looks as gorgeous as the scenery, but like Bourne, we always feel something sinister is just around the corner.

Liman has recruited a terrific cast to tell this story. Potente, the Lola of “Run, Lola, Run,” radiates as the reluctant getaway driver whose past is just as much a mystery as Bourne’s. Potente isn’t a classic Hollywood beauty, but she looks real, and embraces Marie with a spirit that makes her beautiful.

As Conklin, Cooper embodies all that we have come to fear from the government, a man willing to destroy people in order to advance his career. Brian Cox is good as Conklin’s supervisor, Ward Abbott, who has seen this sort of behavior before and knows just how to deal with it. His ultimate solution is quite rewarding.

So is “The Bourne Identity,” an espionage thriller that treats the intended audience with a great deal of respect.


No identity crisis in remake of Ludlum spy thriller


Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles. Directed by Doug Liman. Rated PG-13. 118 Minutes.


Comments are closed.