Bourne Identity 'My Kind of Spy Thriller'

Directed by: Doug Liman, Runtime: 119 minutes
Grade: B+

As mentioned before in my review of Quantum of Solace, I've never been much of a classic Bond fan -- both taking the Connery / Moore originals and the newer crop of Brosnan flicks into account. Therefore, when the series was floundering in the late '90s and early 2000s, there's wasn't a direct need for a "replacement" coming from this direction. However, it seems as if this necessity was at least a partial driving force behind delving into Robert Ludlum's novels (a second time) for a new franchise, revolving around the amnesiac cloak-and-dagger assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Interestingly, the storytelling for this series, Doug Liman's installment The Bourne Identity in particular, anchors to at least a moderate realism that'll appeal even to those who aren't aficionados of the spy thriller style of pictures.

The story starts quickly: a man's silhouette sloshes around lifeless in the middle of the Mediterranean, with little more than a blinking indicator light on his person to attract attention. He's picked up by a fishing boat and patched up, which includes doctoring a few gunshot wounds and removing an odd cylindrical device from his hip that contains an account number of sorts in Zurich. On the boat, he instinctively ties knots he didn't realize he knew how to tie, begins randomly speaking languages, and learns about his capabilities to size opponents up, along with his ability to beat the snot out of them. Gradually the man, whom we'd eventually learn is named Jason Bourne, finds his way to the bank and learns of his identity -- communicated through a barrage of passports, stacks of foreign currency, and a pistol. He's not sure what it all means, but he knows two things: 1) it's not good, and 2) he's got to learn more.

Director Liman, leaning towards the fluid temperance he created with Go, bolsters the core of Robert Ludlum's original story into something that's not trying to mimic a product or create the next dime-a-dozen, perfecto spy archetype. Bourne's geared to do nothing but figure out who the hell he is, and that's a resolve that we're more ready to get behind than yet another MI6 assignment. Instead of bombarding us with plot convolution, it concentrates on the simplicity of Bourne's desperate curiosity as its driving, nerve-rattling force. Matt Damon's the right guy for the job, too; he's rigid, blunt with his dialogue, and really not suave in the slightest, and everything about the way he conducts Bourne is pitch-perfect. Here, we've got a lethal spy in a grimy burnt orange sweatshirt, instead of a tux, who doesn't really even know he's a spy, a badass who's not exactly knowledgeable of his abilities and a guy who may or may not be a suave ladies man -- and, for that reason, Jason Bourne's an identifiable everyman of sorts.

He does eventually link up with a woman, and it ain't Pussy Gallore or Honey Rider. Bourne stumbles upon a German gypsy, Marie (Franka Potente), who helps to guide him along his path to the truth, as well as his actual path from Switzerland to France. She's, in her own right, a bit of the off-the-radar type just like her amnesiac counterpart, which makes them kindred spirits in a backwards way. Franka Potente's a good match for Matt Damon here, stand-offish yet sincere enough as Marie to give them chemistry. The character's best quality, however, is in her ability to be a source for Bourne to bounce off garbled memories and random understandings. One of their best scenes together is in a snowy coffeeshop where she's trying to grasp his situation, along with Bourne's inexplicable knowledge of his strategic, spy-geared brain that tells him how far he can run in the freezing cold and where weapons could be found in close proximity.

We, on the other hand, learn early on that Jason Bourne is this cold-blooded killing machine, a pawn underneath the CIA's fingertips -- more appropriately, under the thumb of Conklin (Chris Cooper), in turn also under the thumb of Ward Abbot (Brian Cox) -- who's blacklisted and marked for elimination due to a botched mission. Knowing what we do about Bourne, and the men hunting him down, Doug Liman guides our focus away from the gadgets and overblown mayhem present in the more "popular" entries in the genre. His focus resides in storytelling, staying gritty, grounded and matter-of-fact as Bourne interlocks pieces of his past through the mostly cold, icy terrains through Switzerland and Paris -- and through terse banter between the CIA heads that occur outside of his earshot. Watching Bourne dangle from snow-covered ledges, or take out three-or-four cops and end up with their firearms, is exciting for the practically behind the sequences.

The Bourne Identity generates enthralling, grind-to-the-bone suspense because of the fact that we're privy to things that the lead character isn't, becoming compelling for its story but ultimately satisfying because of its breakneck yet mindfully controlled pace. A vein of confusion-fueled suspense -- accompanied by an absolutely kinetic score that enhances the motion -- leads us through the cluster of locations, with the hustle 'n bustle at CIA headquarters as the counter force rushing to collide with Jason Bourne at his destination, whatever that might be. Along the way, we're given two highly entertaining scenes that are worth the price of admission alone: one involving a car chase scene through Paris that rivals the likes of Bullitt and the original Italian Job for intensity, and a sweat-breaking sprint through a long-grass field as Bourne evades assassination by another of his Treadstone operatives -- played by Clive Owen in one of his pre-stardom roles. A few other recognizable faces also sneak into the production, including Julia Stiles in a mostly agreeable performance as a shaky CIA/Treadstone desk jockey and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje from "Lost" as political figure, and target, Wombosi.

What I appreciate most about The Bourne Identity is its simplicity, largely due to the precision of Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron's steamline adapted script. As mentioned earlier, Liman opts away from trying to contort the narrative to a drastic degree by focusing on Bourne's search for the truth, yet he retains a level of smarts about the whole affair in a way that controls our perception of the narrative. That's a very refreshing change from the likes of other espionage flicks that try to dazzle with a maze of narrative whodunit spasms that we've got to sift through, all the way to the conclusion. Not Liman's Bourne film; he keeps affairs streamlined and punchy, relationships authentic, and the explosive action sequences (aside from one kneejerk moment at the end of the film) comfortably ingrained in a sense of realism. Now that's my kind of spy thriller.


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