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Arts & Culture

The Bourne Identity

In terms of story, there are no surprises in

The Bourne Identity (opening June 14 throughout San Diego). But you may be surprised by the fact that this formula spy thriller has been delivered with a matter-of-fact efficiency that proves highly entertaining. This first adaptation of Robert Ludlums Jason Bourne novel trilogy was produced by the late author and bodes well for what may be yet another spy franchise.

Matt Damon stars as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity (Universal)


The film opens with a man (Matt Damon) floating in the darkened ocean. Hes picked up by some Italian fishermen who are surprised to find that hes actually still alive. But he has two bullet holes in his back and a capsule implanted in his hip that carries a Swiss bank account number. He also has no idea of who he is or what he was doing in the middle of the ocean. He makes his way to the Swiss bank and discovers that his name is Jason Bourne. Or is it? His safety deposit box contains a small fortune, a gun and a half dozen passports each with a different identity. But whoever he is, someone is now trying to kill him. Desperate, he bribes a young woman ( Run Lola Runs Franka Potente) to drive him to Paris where he hopes to resolve his problems.

What the audience knows but Bourne doesnt is that hes a CIA assassin who failed to execute his last mission. His failure to assassinate an exiled African leader is now a source of embarrassment to his grim boss (Chris Cooper) and a threat to the CIAs credibility. So in a chilling twist, Bourne becomes the target of his own agencys lethal policies.

As a film, The Bourne Identity has no interest in politics or in making any kind of timely commentary on the CIA. This is not the cinema of paranoia that produced films like The Parallax View. The Bourne Identity merely uses politics and the CIA as convenient plot elements for its driving spy thriller. And thats fine because it has no pretenses of doing anything else. Director Doug Liman previously did Swingers and the edgy indie film Go . His unlikely choice as the director of a Hollywood action flick results in a film thats surprisingly fresh despite the familiar genre trappings. The Bourne Identity moves swiftly and efficiently through a dark hued script. Theres nothing flashy about Limans style but he keeps the tension up even when we have a pretty good idea where were going. The script by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron is densely plotted but not really complex. But the film betrays its dark tones for a forced and fake sunniness in the final scenes where it opts for an implausible, unnecessary and unsatisfying upbeat ending.

Clive Owen as a CIA assassin in The Bourne Identity (Universal)

Casting Matt Damon as Bourne is a bit like sending the Boy Wonder when everyone is expecting Batman. Hes too young and not physically imposing enough. But Damon does surprisingly well despite this apparent miscasting. His wholesome, boy scout demeanor works in his favor when he has to convince a young woman to trust a total stranger but makes it harder for us to believe that hes a ruthless killing machine. And hes emotionally too thin to make us buy the crisis of conscience he suffers in regards to his work. But his performance has sincerity and a no-nonsense efficiency. Yet I cant help thinking how much better the film could have been better if it had moved Clive Owena brilliant British actor who has a bit role here as a CIA killerinto the lead role. Owen conveys a sense of ruthlessness but without sacrificing all his humanity. He conveys the maturity and danger that the character of Bourne needs.


The film has talent to burn in its supporting cast. In addition to Owens all too brief appearance, are the under used talents of Brian Cox as a top level CIA administrator and Julia Stiles as a young operative who works behind a desk. Cooper also delivers the goods as Bournes bad boss. Potente, with just a hint of her Lola orange locks, struggles a bit with the character of Marie whos forced to behave in a highly improbable manner as she becomes Bournes ally. But thats a pitfall of this kind of formulafrom Madeleine Carroll in 1935s 39 Steps to Faye Dunaway in1975s 3 Days of the Condor to Potente today, actresses have always had to find ways to make us believe that young women would risk all for strange and dangerous seeming men. But Potente is a welcome presence and fleshes out a fairly one-dimensional character.

Franka Potente and Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity (Universal)

The film also benefits significantly from John Powells pulsing score that drives the tension. The action comes in quick flurries and for the most part maintains a certain realism. But theres a wild stunt at the end that asks us to suspend our disbelief. And if Liman had more of a Hong Kong flair he couldve pulled off the stunt with jaw dropping success. But as it stands, it just seems incongruous with the rest of the film.

The Bourne Identity (rated PG-13 for violence and language) is a smartly executed action film that seems lean and efficient compared with some of the hyped-up and puffed-up summer releases.

Companion viewing: The 39 Steps, Three Days of the Condor, The Ipcress Files