"The Bourne Identity"
This is a story about a highly trained operative in undercover ops who, during a mission, loses his memory and doesn't know who or what he is. Imagine, a secret agent whose identity is secret from himself. This is the pretext for considerable tension, and it works on film as well as it does on paper.
He thinks he's Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), so we'll call him that, but he seems also to be Michael Kane, who is dead. In any case, his collection of passports with different names tells him something about his past -- just nothing specific enough. But, the amnesia is only partial and he can full well remember his martial arts skills, his training to observe details like an encyclopedia, how to coerce and better his enemies and how to escape from just about any trap.
It's just such an escape that brings him into the life of beautiful Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) to whom he offers $20,000 for a ride to Paris. She is no more sure of whether he's a good guy than he is, but the instant solution to her money worries overcomes her caution and they head into the destinies of a spy being hunted.
If only he knew by whom. And, if only they knew he can't remember the secrets they're willing to kill him to protect. But, they don't. They consider him a "malfunctioning thirty million dollar weapon" and, led by operations chief Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper) who is answerable to senator Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) the team sends their best men to put him in a body bag by dinner time. Among other things, this leads to a car chase on the roads, alleys and staircases of Paris that is a lesson in how to choreograph such escapades for the utmost thrills. The sequence deserves (and got in the screening I attended) applause.
Perhaps it's his down to earth charm, his attempt to do right by Marie in opening up an avenue for her to escape the threat to her life, or perhaps it's the skill he displays in besting his adversary, but she falls for him and chooses to stay for the full ride. Her life's in as much danger as his but she's attached.
This is top-notch action material directed and edited tautly by Doug Liman who made hilarious sense of the complex "Go" in 1999 and his editor, Saar Klein. This teaming, including a brilliant and freshly adaptive cast combines for a most engrossing bit of entertainment that maintains tension and credibility throughout. Damon's instinctive responses to the dangers of a powerful force are honed to such an edge that there is delight in believing he is what he is supposed to be. He's as much a superhero of this genre as Schwarzenegger ever was.
While other writers have obsessed over what they call cliches, I point out that the genre has its conventions. This sample of intrigue maintains an enviable level of plausibility while satisfying those conventions dynamically. It's an achievement and a movie that's as good as the book.
In fact, this was the first of Robert Ludlum's opus that I read and it made me an instant and devoted fan. If anything, this movie offers a clarity that the dense plotting of the novel sometimes loses. If you like the genre, if you like to read, get Ludlum. He's no longer with us, unfortunately, but his originality establishes him as a master story teller.
The unique casting of the marvelous Chris Cooper as Bourne's boss and enemy is a stroke in the direction of quality and freshness. Brian Cox's unique personna adds dimension to the otherwise stale role of the mysterious overboss. And, the exciting Franka Potente, who is slowly establishing a record of unique and intelligent heroines, especially after her title role in "Run, Lola, Run" and her thankless role in "Blow" is a perfect choice for the Bourne love interest. Everything between these two is believable. Watch this woman; if talent and justice prevail, she's a star in the making.
Also wonderful presences here are the inimitably laconic Clive Owen ("Croupier", "Second Sight") and gorgeous Julia Stiles, doing what she does mostly alone in a room with electronic equipment. Bottling up such potential that way. My, my.
Links to our reviews of the subsequent chapters in the trilogy:
The Soundtrack album