THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


When I first saw the trailer for The Bourne Identity, I was a little concerned for one of my favorite actors, Matt Damon. Ever since achieving stardom with the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, Damon and his pal Ben Affleck have had very divergent careers. Damon has stretched himself as an actor, appealing in quality films like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ocean's 11, and Saving Private Ryan. He has worked with A-list directors like Anthony Mighella, Steven Soderbergh, and Steven Spielberg. Affleck (Changing Lanes and Bounce notwithstanding) has chosen to appear in a series of often sub-par action movies, such as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, or the current Sum of All Fears. I hoped that Damon wasn't making a bid to become the next big action hero. It didn't take long for me to realize that The Bourne Identity was not your typical action flick, though. There's action here, the emphasis is on story and character, the way it ought to be.

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) asks Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) for a ride to Paris in The Bourne Identity.
Damon plays Jason Bourne, a young man who is found floating unconscious in the ocean. He is rescued by some fishermen, who discover (and remove) several bullets from his back. Upon awakening, Bourne realizes that he has amnesia and cannot remember anything about who he is or how he got there. A clue sends him to Zurich, where a safe deposit box in his name awaits. Inside is a real passport along with multiple fake ones, currency from a dozen different countries, and two handguns. Realizing from the legitimate identification that he must live in Paris, Bourne bribes a German woman named Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) to give him a ride. She agrees, but before long it becomes clear that someone wants to kill Bourne and, by extension, her as well. Bourne must put the pieces together in order to spare both their lives.

Behind the scenes at CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA, Bourne's supervisor, Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper), comes to the realization that Bourne has failed his mission but remains alive. Conklin is in charge of a covert operation called Treadstone, and Bourne's fate could heavily affect the outcome of the mission. Several dangerous assassins are brought in to finish the assignment while a computer and surveillance expert (Julia Stiles) keeps an eye out for Bourne.

If The Bourne Identity seems like an unusual choice for its star, it's an even more unlikely choice for its director. Doug Liman previously made the hip comedy Swingers and the underrated rave comedy Go. Perhaps because his previous films were strong on characterization, this one also keeps the focus on the people. Liman has crafted a slick, fast-paced movie about redemption. Bourne previously lived life as a government automaton. He carried out orders without question; his purpose was to do what he was told. Once his memory is stripped, so is the unquestioning obedience to authority. Bourne begins to reconsider his line of work as well as the reasoning behind it.

Matt Damon is very good at making Jason Bourne a three-dimensional character, even though the man remembers nothing about himself. He brings intensity and seriousness to the role, but also humor. My favorite moment in the picture is when Bourne is accosted by some beat cops while he sleeps on a park bench. One of the cops draws his club and, without thinking, Bourne grabs it. A look crosses his face; he is surprised that he did it, yet the action came so naturally. It's one of the first clues that he has special training he can't remember. The story has several similar moments, where Bourne's carefully-developed instincts take over, revealing skills he didn't know he had. Little details like that are part of what help make The Bourne Identity an above-average international thriller. Having an actor as skilled as Damon pull them off is what makes the film massively entertaining.

When the plot does stop to focus on action, it is handled very well. Liman makes sure the action serves the story. There's a harrowing scene in which Bourne clings to a small ledge on a big building, a car chase through the streets of Paris, and a tense cat-and-mouse chase between Bourne and another assassin. Less successful is the romance between Bourne and Marie, which is just out of place. The film ends with one of those hokey reunions, where he somehow tracks her down on an exotic island and they embrace in the sunlight.

I can live with that flaw since the rest of the movie is so good. Robert Ludlum wrote the book on which The Bourne Identity was based. He used the main character in several other novels, and sequel possibilities have already been discussed. I don't say this often, but if Liman and company do it as well as they've done this one, I'd happily sit through a sequel.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Bourne Identity is rated PG-13 for violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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