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DVD Review: The Bourne Identity

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Released by Universal Pictures; 118 minutes

Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente, and Chris Cooper

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

Directed by Doug Liman


One of my favorite novels of all time came to theatres last summer, without a lot of hype or star power. Still, The Bourne Identity won a good amount of critical acclaim, and was easily in my top five movies of 2002. The Collector’s Edition DVD was released on January 21st.


The Movie:


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 plays the titular role of Jason Bourne. When the movie opens, Bourne is floating in the Mediterranean Sea, two bullets in his back, a laser projector (revealing a Swiss bank account number) embedded in his hip, and no memory of who he is or how he got there. After reaching land, 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. This presents the character and the audience with the important question: what is the Bourne identity – also, what is the born identity, when, like the title character, one is “born” at age thirty-three?


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, all his moves efficient, fast, and debilitating. The reasons for that, explained nicely in Ludlum's excellent novel, are not touched upon in the movie, one of the few flaws I have with its storytelling. Fleeing pursuit, Bourne enlists the aid of Marie (Franka Potente) to drive him to Paris, where the manhunt by Conklin (Chris Cooper, playing a character criminally shortchanged in the big-screen adaptation) and the rest of the uber-secret Treadstone group intensifies.


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 a Mini-Cooper 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 intelligence of the film, and its lack of reliance on what has sadly come to define the genre, point out the flaws in the Bond franchise constantly.


The main problem I had with The Bourne Identity is the denouement. 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 the 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 an audience it had cherished by presenting a heretofore sharp, intellectual spy thriller.


Ending aside, 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.


The Extras:


The most hyped of the special features was a never-before-seen alternate ending. Having seen it now, I can say there is a very good reason it never saw the light of day until the DVD release: it absolutely sucks. The ending scene in the movie has a sugary flavor to it, but it’s still palatable. The alternate ending is pure saccharine crap. Watch it if you’re an alternate endings freak, but otherwise, it’s definitely worth avoiding.


There are four deleted scenes, and one extended scene provided. Of the deleted scenes, only the one with the Treadstone fellows talking to a psychologist about Bourne adds anything to the movie. She basically confirms his claims that he doesn’t remember anything, and despite that, they go ahead with trying to kill him. It creates a little more sympathy for Bourne – who’s already an effective sympathetic character – and casts his pursuers in a harsher light.


The other deleted scenes add little or nothing to the film, and leaving them on the cutting room floor was the correct decision. The only other one that does anything at all is Bourne and Marie’s roadside conversation, in which she tries to get out of their deal over her concerns about the type of man who pays $20,000 for a ride to Paris. It gives a little glimpse into her character, focusing on her trust issues, but it also paints her as pretty flighty and bitchy. For those reasons, leaving it out was a good call (snippets of it did appear in the theatrical trailer, though). The extended scene shows Bourne interacting with Eamon’s kids while he and Marie are hiding at his house. You won’t miss it.


The featurette “The Birth of The Bourne Identity” (15 minutes) features the cast and crew talking about adapting Ludlum’s very successful book to the big screen. Doug Liman talks about one of the huge things Matt Damon brings to the role of Jason Bourne: “a lot of depth, a lot of stuff behind the eyes.” He’s right, and it’s really something that the role requires. Damon also talks about the physical work involved, including a training regimen that involved learning Kali, the Filipino martial art. A lot of the work was challenging for Damon, since he’d never been in an action role before. It’s a pretty interesting behind-the-scenes featurette.


Also included is a feature-length director’s commentary, sine qua non to DVDs these days. I’ve never been a big fan of these, since I dislike people talking over movies. However, Doug Liman’s commentary is enlightening and entertaining. He starts off by talking about the hard-learned mistake of deleting the Universal music from the logo preceding the film, as it cues the audience to be quiet. Liman’s father was an interrogator during Iran-Contra, and the director acknowledges that the nuts and bolts of those hearings went into the movie version of Treadstone. Conklin, for example, has a lot of Oliver North in him (Liman admits to a left-leaning political agenda that influenced some of the script). Liman sheds some light on the difference between indie films and studio releases – on an indie, you cast a role by getting someone “like” a certain actor, while a studio release allows you to get the actor himself. He also talks about the movie’s PG-13 rating, which allows for only one or two uses of “the F-word.” It became almost a contest among the actors to drop the single permitted F-bomb in the movie, with the nod finally going to Matt Damon. Liman also talks about the use of CGI and digital effects in the film, mainly to enhance sets and locations that needed something extra. The stairwell in the Treadstone building was a digital creation, as were other locations that didn’t really exist where the movie was filming. It’s good to see digital effects used like that, and not to overpower the movie by distracting the audience. In toto, this was one of the best director’s commentaries I’ve seen.


The rest of the features are rounded by the video for Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” the film’s theatrical trailer, cast and crew notes, and limited DVD-ROM content. It’s a pretty solid package overall.


The Specs:


I bought the widescreen version, which is presented in a very nice 2:35:1 anamorphic ratio. Dolby 5.1 and DTS are available for audio choices. The video transfer looks pretty good, but the movie looked a little more vibrant in theatres. It’s low contrast to begin with, but the DVD version has a more washed-out look to it, especially regarding black detail and shadow detail. The sound is excellent, of course, whichever method you choose to kick out from your speakers.



The Movie: 8/10

The Extras: 7/10

Audio/Video: 8/10

Overall (not an average) 8/10


This is definitely a recommended buy for anyone who’s a fan of spy thrillers and character-driven stories. It’s equal parts drama and action movie, but it doesn’t feel like most action movies; The Bourne Identity appeals to the brain, not the adrenal glands. Interestingly, an earlier version exists, filmed in 1988 and starring Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne. I just recently got that DVD (the fact that it’s very closely based on the book was the main lure), and I’ll be reviewing it soon to compare it to this release. I don't expect it to be as good as this one, though, which was one of last year's best movies, and is certain to be one of this year's best DVD releases.


Dr. Tom

(Remove the spam-sniffing leading X's to holler back at me)

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