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The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman) 2002
Though it doesn’t exactly suck, indie director Doug Liman’s (Swingers, Go) adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s spy novel The Bourne Identity is far from money. The prospect of its top-notch cast, headed by Matt Damon, teamed with Liman’s astute directorial sensibilities had me hoping for a smarter, shrewder action movie than usual, but it only delivers on those promises intermittently. It has the reeled-in pyrotechnics and the muted pacing of an intelligent spy film, but it doesn’t have the smarts of one, and instead opts for a clichéd scenario and cast of characters. Damon plays Jason Bourne, the amnesiac (d’oh) hero who’s found floating in the sea at the start of the film. Unable to trust anyone, he attempts to piece together his memories as he travels around Europe incognito with a pretty girl (Franka Potente) in tow. Haven’t we heard this all before?
Though Bourne’s first half-hour is thuddingly dull, it does manage to eventually find legs to stand on once Potente shows up. She’s very good here, and Damon and her have excellent comic and nervous energy together in the scenes where they slowly learns about the extent of his spying skills. These scenes work, since as he explains himself to her, he also fills the audience in. Unfortunately, whenever the couple veers toward romantic entanglement, their charisma subsides. Despite the script’s protests, there’s no love story here. None of the other cast members is nearly as memorable as Potente is (Julia Stiles and Clive Owen, in particular, are wasted), so when she suddenly bows out, the loss is great, and the movie never really recovers again.
Much of the film’s disappointment is centered on the lack of a strong villain. Our reluctant hero’s paranoia might be appropriate here, but we never really get a strong feeling of why, exactly. The CIA operatives that seem to be masterminding the trouble here remain unnecessarily sketchy, and the background of the hero seems to rely on generic assumptions that the audience has seen plenty of other spy movies. Instead of playing a game of cat-and-mouse, Bourne remains mostly in the dark about his situation, and even after the inevitable scene where his memory is regained, itself a sequence that doesn’t play out nearly as well as it should, a startling number of plot threads remain untied. It doesn’t help much that this relatively empty-headed caper is a bore visually. Everything has a flat, uninteresting look to it, and few of the action scenes are terribly exciting. Even the dynamics of the good-on-paper Parisian car chase pales in comparison to Liman’s comic chase scene from his Go (and even more so to John Frankenheimer’s Ronin). Everything about Bourne feels like a setup for a greater story that’s still to be told. Although, I can’t quite recommend Bourne’s first film outing, I sincerely hope that I get to see its sequel some day.
* * 1/2