The Bourne Identity
Thoroughly cool (scene for scene) and just as thoroughly forgettable, The Bourne Identity has some of the pared-down, businesslike thrills of Ronin but little of its personality. You enjoy it while you’re there, but once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it — you don’t feel as though there are secrets and meanings tucked away in dark corners, as you do with a more artful thriller like Christopher Nolan’s Memento (or his more recent movie, Insomnia). Many, indeed, will compare this film to Memento, and for good reason: Both are about mysterious protagonists who can’t remember anything, and who, we suspect, don’t want to remember. But Memento immersed the audience in the hero’s disorientation, while The Bourne Identity is just another thrill ride, though a reasonably well-crafted one.
Something about Matt Damon — his mixture of hard and soft features, maybe — has compelled directors to put him in one identity crisis after another. He seems both defined and blank, which works well for his character here, Jason Bourne, who has no memory of who he is but knows he has certain talents for survival. He has six different passports (under different names) stashed away, he finds (to his surprise) that he can speak a variety of languages, and when cornered he instinctively lashes out in devastating self-defense — it’s as if his mind forgot who he is but his body remembers very well.
The CIA, led by a frowning Chris Cooper, wants to find Bourne, or kill him, or both. Bourne isn’t sure which, so he flees to Paris, along with a German drifter named Marie (Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run), whom he entices with $10,000 and the promise of more. For Marie, the trip soon becomes less about the money than about the adventure; though Marie’s character is drawn even more sketchily than Bourne’s, the dynamic and entrancing Potente gives the movie a badly needed shot of what-the-hell spirit. Terrified in moments of danger, Marie nonetheless gets it together enough to yell at an assassin, demanding to know where he got her picture. Potente also lends the movie a good helping of Euro-style, particularly after her hair is cropped short and dyed black and she appears in a black turtleneck; she’s like a beatnik in the middle of a blockbuster, and she’s just irrefutably cool.
Written by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, based on a Robert Ludlum thriller (it was adapted before as a 1988 miniseries, with Richard Chamberlain), The Bourne Identity doesn’t bother much with the reality of what it might be like to discover gradually that one is, at the very least, a highly skilled government agent of some sort, or maybe worse. Damon slips into foreign tongues and has the wit to show a flash of bemusement — “I know this?” he might be thinking — but I would’ve liked to have seen him feeling triumphant, or horrified, or something, in the aftermath of his violence. Director Doug Liman, in a sharp change of pace from his earlier Swingers and Go, doesn’t seem interested in Bourne’s morality; he’s just along for the ride.
And it’s occasionally a satisfying one. Bourne’s reflexive genius at getting out of any sticky situation becomes something of a joke (one that I wish we were encouraged to share in); he has a brief, savage bout with an assassin in a hotel room, and a nicely staged encounter with another assassin in a field of tall grass. There’s also a supremely bumpy car chase over the cobblestones of Paris that — perhaps because Franka Potente is riding shotgun, caught between panic and ecstasy — manages to be strangely charming. The Bourne Identity does the job, but it’s a very basic job; I can’t work up a lot of respect for a movie that relegates fine actors like Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, and the imposing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (late of HBO’s prison series Oz) to glorified walk-ons. The movie is about muscular speed and skill, and that’s all it’s about. Like its hero, it’s blank by design.