Universal // 2002 // 119 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // February 17th, 2003
Danger is Bourne.
"I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed, and that the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half-mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?" -- Jason Bourne
A trawlerload of fishermen discovers a man -- a babyfaced thirtysomething cipher with an American accent and two bullet holes in his back (Matt Damon, Ocean's Eleven, The Talented Mr. Ripley) -- floating in the middle of the Mediterranean. Awakened and nursed back to health, the stranger can't remember anything about himself: not his name, not his background, not how he came to be shark bait. He therefore has no idea how it happens that he speaks several languages fluently, ties one heck of a sailor's knot, can read nautical charts like the back of his hand, and has a device implanted in his hip that, once removed, projects a laser image of an account number at a high-security Swiss bank.
After landing in Paris, our mystery man travels to Zurich, hoping that the bank account number will provide some clue to his identity. Instead, the safe deposit box keyed to the secret number offers more fresh questions: Why do I own six passports -- all with different names and nationalities, but my photograph? How did I acquire a king's ransom in paper currency? Why am I hiding a pistol in my safe deposit box? Quite by accident, he also finds himself extremely adept at hand-to-hand combat, much to the chagrin of two members of the Swiss constabulary who roust him while he's sleeping on a park bench, and of a battalion of Marines at the American embassy in Zurich who try to detain him for questioning.
What the Nowhere Man doesn't know, until well after the audience does, is that the truth about himself is somehow connected to a covert U.S. government operation codenamed Treadstone, headed up by the surly Conklin (Chris Cooper, Adaptation, Lone Star), and to an apparent assassination attempt on an African leader named Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, The Mummy Returns, TV's Oz). All our hero -- who adopts the name "Jason Bourne" from one of his sextet of passports -- does know is that he's on the lam across Europe accompanied by a footloose young German woman named Marie (Franka Potente, Run Lola Run, Blow) whom he hires as his makeshift chauffeur and tour guide. Together, Bourne and his reluctant gal pal attempt to puzzle out who he is, and why a seemingly endless series of Eurotrash gunslingers (including Clive Owen, piloting a Beamer just like in the short films at the BMW website) want to put even more bullet holes in Jason's hunky hide.
In other words, Run, Will Hunting, Run.
Robert Ludlum fans beware: this post-Cold War take on Ludlum's classic spy novel bears precious little resemblance to the original, outside of its title, its basic premise, and a handful of character names. Action movie fans beware also: you'll find most of the ingredients here painfully familiar at times. The Bourne Identity is John Frankenheimer's Ronin crossed with Antoine Fuqua's The Replacement Killers -- a dash of Starman added here, a hint of the first Mission: Impossible film there, all poured over the crackling ice of The Long Kiss Goodnight...or, if you go back this far, the cult 1960s TV series Coronet Blue.
Familiar isn't bad if you do something fresh and entertaining with the elements, and director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go) succeeds for the most part. Forget about the onionskin plot devised by screenwriters Tony Gilroy (Proof of Life, The Devil's Advocate) and William Blake Herron (A Texas Funeral) -- I've seen china saucers with more depth -- and just hang on for a thrilling, energy-charged sleigh ride. All the action is up close and personal; the drama primarily derived from the picture's human elements rather than overblown pyrotechnics.
When I saw it during its theatrical run, The Bourne Identity left me a bit cold, with star Matt Damon seeming too matter-of-fact and banal for a hero spy. Fortunately, the film plays much better in the intimacy of the small screen, and improves with repeated viewing. It's a matter of expectations, really -- once you know the path the film is going to travel, and that the "mystery" of Bourne's identity isn't the point after all, it's easier to accept Liman's work on its own terms as an homage to the gritty espionage films of the early 1960s (it's more The Ipcress File, say, than xXx), before the James Bond franchise forever altered the way we view the whole genre.
Damon's grown on me as the film has. He's still too mild and callow for the part, but his understated way of handling the constant crises his character faces is perfect for the overall tone of the movie. Without question, Damon is outshone by his ostensible sidekick Franka Potente -- she is, for all practical purposes, dismissed from the storyline for most of the final reel, for fear her natural charisma (a word never applied to her male lead) will shove Matt-boy totally into the shadows. Still, there's a pleasant, unforced attraction between this duo that really cooks, so much so that it's a shame their budding relationship is sacrificed on the altar of whiz-bang until the coda. (Damon and Potente share a quiet bravura sequence mid-movie in which Bourne, hoping to thwart their pursuers, alters Marie's appearance by rinsing the magenta dye out of her hair and giving her a punky trim. As the scene progresses without a single spoken word, the sexual tension between the actors becomes so palpable it crackles.) I'd like to see them teamed together again in a film where their respective roles -- and screen time -- are more equal.
Liman keeps the suspense going remarkably well, given how few real surprises the plot has in store. His style is kinetic but not overly percussive, and despite the fact that deceptively little happens for long stretches of screentime, Liman never lets the pace flag. His one key failure is in filling his cast with fine supporting players -- Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Clive Owen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Julia Stiles in the most underwritten and perfunctory female role since Annette O'Toole in 48 HRS. -- then neglecting to provide them anything interesting to do or say. (Years from now -- or maybe just by next Tuesday -- Stiles herself will have forgotten she was in this movie.) And on occasion Limon, pressed by scheduling and budgetary constraints, makes basic filmmaking mistakes, like the sloppy composite sequence late in the film where everyone watching can plainly tell that one of the three people in the heavily edited scene isn't physically present with the other two.
On the whole, Limon and his lead actors deliver two engaging, if disposable, hours of entertainment that pass the wristwatch test with ease. The Bourne Identity is the best John Frankenheimer movie not directed by the late Mr. Frankenheimer himself, and it's better than a couple that were. (Anyone for Reindeer Games? The Island of Dr. Moreau?)
Universal's Widescreen Collector's Edition (as though "Fullscreen Collector's Edition" wasn't an oxymoron) of The Bourne Identity offers genuine value for your entertainment dollar. The anamorphic transfer shows the film well enough, though contrast and resolution issues persist throughout the film. The director chose a stark, naturalistic palette for the movie -- the story takes place in winter in Europe, so the scenery is bleak to start with -- but the digital presentation doesn't preserve enough of the original clarity and life to prevent the film from looking rather muddy. The print itself is free from defects, and I didn't spot any serious digital artifacting, but someone sure could have tweaked the contrast knob up a hair.
The THX-certified soundtrack, on the other hand, is excellent -- one of the finest I've heard on disc recently. This track, offered in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS flavors (as well as a French dub track in DD 5.1), affords a varied sonic experience, enveloping without being overbearing, and dynamically rich from treble to booming bass. John Powell's subtle score is featured quite effectively. In a couple of spots, the dialogue was ever-so-slightly too soft. On the whole, though, Universal's audio engineers have done commendable work here.
A winning assortment of extras begins with a stellar commentary by director Doug Liman, who expounds upon every facet of the production from concept to delivery. Liman is a bright guy, perceptive and admirably candid about the weaknesses of his film, and about the ways his personal political philosophy informs the story choices at certain points. Commentary fans will find this disc worth owning for the yak-track alone.
The featurette The Birth of The Bourne Identity is flashy, high-quality promotional fodder, typical of its kind and a cut above most. The customary interviews and clips don't lend much insight beyond what one gains from watching the film and listening to the director's commentary, but those who enjoy the usual cable-TV filler will find this a well-made example.
Four deleted scenes run about two minutes each. Although presented in widescreen, these are raw in appearance, fraught with moiré effects and other digital noise. A fifth scene is an extended version of a sequence in the film that was trimmed for good reason, it would seem. Likewise, the filmmakers were wise to ditch the "exclusive alternate ending," which is only subtly different from but inferior to the conclusion of the finished product.
Music fans might enjoy the music video Extreme Ways featuring the artist Moby, who though arguably great and undeniably white, is not whale-like in any visible respect. The divine Mr. M's piece incorporates ample footage from the film, weaving singer and story together seamlessly. An anamorphic -- and incongruently explosive -- trailer, eight screens of tepid production notes, and bios of the cast, writers and directors put the exclamation point on this sentence. One more thing: PC users can boot this bad boy up and Total Axess (don't ask me -- Universal spells it that way) some additional stills and clips online.
I don't know whether Matt Damon cares about such things, but in case he does...
Yo, Matt -- your pals at Universal Home Entertainment have chosen, for the cover art of this DVD, this year's winner in the World's Ugliest Snapshot of Matt Damon Amateur Photography Sweepstakes. You look like a badly rendered mannequin of yourself from a supremely cheesy tourist-trap wax museum. Let them keep this up and you'll never be named People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, like your bud Ben Affleck.
Not as good as the book -- what movie is, really? -- but better than the sum of its parts (not to mention The Sum of All Fears). Definitely more entertaining than the dishwater-dull 1988 Richard Chamberlain TV miniseries. If you're the sort that likes your spy thrillers '60s-style edgy as opposed to '90s-style bombastic, you'll find The Bourne Identity a solid addition to the genre. But more Franka Potente in the sequel, please.
The Judge was going to pronounce sentence on this film, but after a substantial donation to the DVD Verdict Retirement Fund from an anonymous benefactor with a Swiss bank account, Jason Bourne is free to go. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Rankins; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary Featuring Director Doug Liman
* Featurette: The Birth of The Bourne Identity
* Four Deleted Scenes
* Alternate Ending
* Extended Scene
* Music Video: Extreme Ways Featuring Moby
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Filmographies
* Total Axess DVD-ROM Features
* Official Site
* What Exactly Is Amnesia?