The Bourne Identity has an absurd premise that’s as irresistible as it is ludicrous. A fishing boat in the Mediterranean dredges up a body. The man is nearly dead, with two fresh bullet wounds in his back and an electronic gizmo bearing the number of a Swiss bank account implanted in his hip. Once revived, he has no recollection of who he is or why he was shot and left for dead. What he does have is a peculiar collection of survival skills: he’s fluent in a dozen languages, he can effortlessly tie complex rigging knots, and, when cornered, he fights with an agility and viciousness that would give Jet Li pause. He’s like James Bond with a lobotomy, a man who can do everything well but hasn’t the slightest idea why he’s doing it.
He makes his way to Zurich so that he can pursue the bank account, his only clue about his identity. There, he learns that he’s named Jason Bourne – at least that’s what one of the dozen passports in his safety deposit box says – and that he seems to be a player in a dangerous international intrigue. Within an hour of his bank visit, every soldier and policeman in Switzerland is mobilized against him and the CIA is alerting its operatives. He bribes a German woman for a ride to Paris, then spends the rest of the film evading armies and assassins, all while trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.
For its first half, The Bourne Identity balances between droll comedy and paranoiac suspense, with a new, more menacing opponent hiding in every shadow and Bourne as surprised as we are by his ingenuity at dispatching them. Matt Damon plays him as an innocent, an unexpectedly lethal superspy who doesn’t know what he’s capable of until the machine guns are blazing. It’s an ideal role for Damon, who specializes in unformed, immature boys who inch towards manhood over the course of each film. His most substantial quality is his very pliability: in The Talented Mr. Ripley, his best role, he builds a personality for himself scene by scene, adopting the traits he most covets from everyone around him.
Bourne is a literal blank, someone with no characteristics whatsoever. He responds instinctively in every situation, and has the same dull expression no matter how extreme the violence turned against him. The doe-eyed stare is funny at first – this may be the first epic car chase where the driver looks more perplexed than frightened – and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), as his accidental accomplice, provides a great foil, as amazed by his lack of affect as by the out-of-nowhere attacks. The film only really falters once the enormity of the trouble he’s in overwhelms the snappy comic drive of the opening, and it devolves into a standard espionage thriller.
Director Doug Liman’s earlier films, Swingers and Go, were smart, rattling comedies that never felt hemmed in by their low budgets. Making the leap to studio production, Liman is a much more anonymous craftsman. There’s nothing like the frenetic energy of Go or the offhand cinematography and drably deglamorized location work that caught nighttime L.A. so effectively in both films. Gone, too, are the belly laughs, the loopy bits of nonsense like Go‘s Amway cultist cop or Jon Favreau’s dozen desperate phone messages in Swingers.
Only in the subtly disorienting editing of some early sequences – used to make Bourne’s growing dread more visceral – is there a hint of Liman’s more adventurous early work. There are two excellent extended action scenes – a car chase through the streets of Paris is as funny as it is exciting – and fine performances throughout. (Brian Cox and Chris Cooper are especially good as CIA officials watching their secret pet project derail). This is state of the art Hollywood genre filmmaking: impersonal, efficient and exciting.