The Bourne Identity (review)

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Will spy shit ever not be cool? Jason Bourne runs around cobblestoned European streets walloping cops and hired killers alike with karate chops, shuffling multiple passports (all with his photo in ’em), slipping in and out of embassies and Swiss banks, hiding out in cheap hostels, and getting the girl. The Bourne Identity moves quickly and cleverly enough to trick you into thinking the car chases and fistfights feel fresh, and it’s loaded with cool gadgets and continental savoir faire. It’s as fantastically, improbably cool as international intrigue gets.
Even if Matt Damon is in the middle of it all. We’ve mostly seen him as dorky intellectuals and, as his buddy Ben Affleck sniped in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, “gay serial killers on horses,” so he’s maybe not the first choice that springs to mind when you say “CIA assassin gone rogue.” And I can’t help but think that maybe Affleck’s (and Kevin Smith’s) comment stung a little, and maybe he decided that if Affleck could do Tom Clancy, then he sure as hell could do Robert Ludlum. Okay, sure, Affleck’s Jack Ryan saves the world from nuclear war while Damon’s Jason Bourne only saves his own ass, but still: He’s onscreen with things blowing up, and Affleck doesn’t get to stab a guy in the arm. So there.

I’d love to eavesdrop on the guys’ phone call, on Sunday afternoon, when it looks like Jason Bourne has pushed Jack Ryan off the top of the box office heap.

Sos anyway, Damon’s (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Ocean’s Eleven) Bourne wakes up one day with no memory of who he is — it’s actually a little more complicated than that, but it doesn’t matter — and goes in search of himself. Kinda like a reverse Prisoner, nefarious spy types are after him and they want information, only he has nothing to give them, but he sure as hell wants to find out who they are and what they know. He teams up with messed-up chick Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente: Blow, Run Lola Run) when he offers her a crapload of money for a ride halfway across Europe. People try to kill them along the way. That’s what happens when you don’t take along your Rough Guide to Being a Rogue American Agent in Europe.

If there’s a problem with The Bourne Identity, it’s a problem that plagues many, many Hollywood films: the secondary characters are far more interesting than the hero. Damon’s a little, well, bland, which perhaps is a necessity in a character who’s supposed to be able to don and shuck different identities with ease, but it’s also more than a little frustrating to imagine how much more excitement could have been gleaned from a version of the story in which Potente was the protagonist instead of the tagalong girlfriend — Run Lola Run demonstrated she’s got the balls to pull it off, and even if she brings more to the tagalong girlfriend role than it deserves, it’s not enough for her dynamic talent and screen presence. Or maybe Julia Stiles (O, The Business of Strangers) coulda made Jayne Bourne cool, too, but instead she’s stuck in an unforgiving role as a CIA operative in Europe who does little more than answer the phone and be generally clumsy and timid. Her boss, and Bourne’s, at the CIA, is played by Chris Cooper (The Patriot, October Sky), a scowling, cranky god among actors, who relishes every moment of his scene-stealing treachery. I bet it was even his idea for his character to wear nerdy short-sleeved dress shirts, for that special sauce of wonky perfidy.

And then there’s Clive Owen (Gosford Park, Croupier), who positively smolders as a CIA assassin sent to take out Bourne. He speaks but in one of his few scenes, and that scene is — unfortunately for Damon — with Bourne. Regardless of what happens to his character, Damon gets blown away, buried under superior charisma. I’d say that Owen should have been Bourne, except he would have been so combustible that the film would have burned up multiplex screens around the world and theater owners would sue the studio and it would be a whole big mess.

Still, for a Hollywood action flick, you can’t do much better than Bourne. Director Doug Liman (Go) gives us an hilarious car chase, tiny European cars chugging along after one another through narrow streets, the traffic that gets in their way bouncing around like bumper cars. And the many hand-to-hand combat sequences, in which Damon acquits himself surprisingly ferociously, don’t look like anything we’ve seen before. Making the same-old same-old feel new is a tall order, and Liman and Damon and Potente and the rest get many brownie points for making it work as smashingly as it does.

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