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Movie Review: The Bourne Identity

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Released by MCA/Universal Pictures; 118 minutes

Starring Matt Damon and Franka Potente

Written by Troy Gilroy and William Blake Heron; loosely based on the novel by Robert Ludlum

Directed by Doug Liman


The Bourne Identity has a lot going for it. It's the sharpest spy thriller to grace the theatre in a long time (easily destroying the explosion-riddled adolescent excursions passing for the last few Bond films), its acting and directing are top-notch, and it has a very compelling story that unfolds marvelously throughout the movie. The problem is, the last five minutes do a lot to cheapen the first 113.


Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) plays the titular role of Jason Bourne. When the movie opens, Bourne is floating in the Mediterranean Sea, two bullets in his back and a laser projector embedded in his hip. He has no memory of how he got there, not even his name. After reaching land in Switzerland, he discovers the projector holds an account number in a Swiss bank. Bourne soon discovers he has millions of dollars in various international currencies, and an identity: Jason Bourne, American citizen living in Paris. Unfortunately, there are five other passports in the deposit box, each with Bourne's face and a different name.


Bourne soon learns he's not quite like everyone else. He has an uncanny awareness of his surroundings, and is the paragon of proficiency in self-defense, moving with a speed and strength impossible to match. The reasons for that, explained nicely in Ludlum's novel, are not touched upon in the movie, one of the few flaws I have with its storytelling.


Bourne is forced to flee pursuit from the American Embassy police, and he enlists the aid of Marie (Franka Potente, probably best known to American audiences for Blow) to drive him to Paris. It soon becomes a habit for Bourne to flee whoever is chasing him, and the fact that they know a lot more about him than he does frustrates him. Marie wants to be rid of him once the danger is apparent, but she ends up stuck with him as they avoid capture and death several times. Eventually, Bourne confronts his pursuers and the inevitable showdown occurs.


Doug Liman (Go, Swingers) does an excellent job moving the story along without allowing too much of it to unfold at once. The audience knows who is pursuing Bourne, but learn a lot of the details he learns when he learns them. There's a genuine mystery going on, and it's a credit to the sparseness of the information screenwriters Gilroy and Heron dole out that the mystery is maintained as long as it is.


Matt Damon is very good as Bourne. He is appropriately confused and angry at his repeated failure to learn more about himself. Every time it looks like he's about to turn a corner, there's someone waiting there with a gun and a bad attitude. Jason Bourne is probably the most complex character Damon has played, and he handled all the idiosyncrasies well.


Shot on a low budget and without a lot of studio acclaim, this is an excellent example of a good small movie getting a chance to succeed. The special effects budget is noticeably lacking, as there are few explosions clouding the screen in The Bourne Identity. There is a car chase, and a masterful one at that, with the perfect direction at each turn. The fact that the lead car in the chase is so tiny and fragile-looking never detracts from the action; in fact, it enhances it by adding an element of danger not present when sports cars and sedans are tearing up the streets.


The main problem I had with The Bourne Identity is the ending. The scene is well set, with the circular stairwell at once an inviting and dangerous place for a shootout. The fact that there was even a shootout seemed unnecessary, though, and something that was thrown in to make audiences used to Hollywood's brand of stylized violence happy. The final stunt that Bourne uses to escape is incredibly contrived and ridiculous -- to the point that it would never work -- and serves to insult the intelligence of the audience it had cherished by presenting a heretofore sharp, intellectual spy thriller.


Ending aside, though, The Bourne Identity is the best example of its genre to come along in years. Its slow exposition makes for a very compelling story, and Liman's talent for kinetic but uncluttered action scenes keeps that story flowing nicely. There's not a lot of star power past Damon, and if you're looking for big effects, you'll go home disappointed. But if you want to watch an intelligent movie that tells a compelling story, The Bourne Identity is definitely something you should see. 7.5/10


Dr. Tom

Visit my corner of the net at www.cynicsrule.com

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