Last year, Christopher Nolan took memory loss to a new level with his masterful thriller Memento, in which the hero tattoos notes on his body to help him cope with his condition. This year, the amnesiac champion of The Bourne Identity uses brains and brawn as a means of sorting out his memory loss. Doug Liman directs Identity with the same degree of creativity as he demonstrated with Swingers and Go, despite some reportedly epic studio and script squabbles. This time, however, he works on a much grander scale.
The Bourne Identity is based upon Robert Ludlum’s famous series of spy thrillers about the elusive and extra-human Jason Bourne. Matt Damon plays Bourne, a spy who survives a shipwreck in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea but does not remember his identity or past. Implanted in his back are a series of bullets and a capsule containing an account number for a safety deposit box in Zurich. Once inside the box, he uncovers a supply of passport identities, money, and weapons – which only adds to his confusion.
By this point in time, Bourne becomes a hunted man, pursued by hired assassins. A clueless Bourne seeks refuge in the American embassy, but he is equally unsafe there and relies on his extraordinary physical and mental abilities to escape his unknown adversaries. Bourne hastily employs a gypsy named Marie (Franka Potente from Run Lola Run) outside the embassy, offering her $10,000 to help him elude his pursuers and drive him to Paris, where he believes his true identity can be found.
The Bourne Identity is an engaging action thriller painted against some of Europe’s most beautiful locales. Great care is taken with the look and feel of Liman’s film, set against Prague’s snow-covered mountain countryside, a rain-washed Paris metropolis, and the beautiful blue seashores of Greece. Identity bears little resemblance to Liman’s previous film efforts which were set in dreary Los Angeles where twenty-something’s discuss their single lifestyles.
There is a serviceable plot to Identity regarding CIA operations, a failed hit on an African exile and a government program to breed assassins; however, the film at times prompts more questions than it answers. There are many details left out which would better explain Bourne’s past, his relationship with Marie and those seeking his capture. Apparently this is intended to mimic his memory loss. Liman shows us in Identity that he has the talent to rise above a trendy Southern California film to direct a more complex project that moves its grand palette across Europe.
Liman avoids using the cliché James Bond-like devices for Bourne to get out of situations. Rather, he allows us to see Bourne think on his feet, analyze a situation and transform those thoughts into actions. One of the film’s most thrilling moments comes from a car chase as Bourne and Marie elude police motorcycles and cruisers through the streets and alleyways of Paris.
Damon reportedly learned martial arts and weapons training that allowed him to perform all of his own stunts. Potente uses her command of numerous languages to add a degree of believability to her role that may not have been achieved with a more commercial actress. Chris Cooper (American Beauty) is the CIA agent in charge of hunting down Bourne, but his one-dimensional character is limited to barking orders to his subordinates or pandering to his superior (Brian Cox).
Despite the plot misgivings, Liman’s exotic spy thriller gets high marks for action choreography and Damon’s outstanding performance. With The Bourne Identity, Liman demonstrates his ability as a director and shows potential for expansion of his creative effort.
Hope I’m not forgetting anything.
Review by David Levine © 2002 filmcritic.com