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The Bourne Identity (2002)

by on 2011/11/06

“You’re acting like I’m trying to burn you here. I’m just trying to do the right thing.”

* * * *

For years — heck, decades — Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity sat on my bookshelf, unread. That purple paperback with its spiky seashell cover never stopped tempting me, but it also never got my full attention, likely by the dint of many other distractions.

I caught the original adaptation in 1988, a made-for-TV affair, with Richard Chamberlin in the title role. It was an experience I all-too-quickly forgot. It has its fans, I understand, but it made little impression upon me.

Then came Doug Liman, a director responsible for a string of varied works I’ve enjoyed: Swingers, Go, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the sadly unappreciated Knight Rider (2008). His crew took that Ludlum book and turned it into a distillation of much that I love. After years of attempts by other rivals — XXX, True Lies, and Never Say Never Again — the James Bond franchise faced its greatest threat with 2002‘s version of Jason Bourne (Saving Private Ryan’s Matt Damon).

He wakes in the Mediterranean, wounded, nearly drowned, and with amnesia. His only clue is a Swiss bank number which sends him off to Zurich. There he meets Marie Kreutz (Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente), a student living off the grid. Joining forces, they follow a trail of clues leading to France.

Along the way, our hero discovers his unusual characteristics. While he remembers little, including musical preferences, he does speak many languages. He instinctively knows when he’s being observed or followed, and he’s adept at escape. He’s exceptionally observant, good at driving, and a dangerous combatant. Which is fortunate when assassins keep popping up.

The race to solve the mystery of Bourne’s memory was one I remembered misleadingly myself. I thought it had been more pan-European than it is but very little of the action actually takes place outside of Paris. Within that focus, Identity reminded me a bit of Enemy of the State, with unified surveillance brought to bear on a fleeing target. The irony is, the protagonist is as elusive as the answer he seeks out. Otherwise, the excitement would be over very soon.

I was of two minds in watching this time. First, I decided I was watching the pinnacle of late 1990s adventure, the clear benefactor of others like Mission: Impossible, The Saint, and Ronin. Unfortunately, the second side of me — especially toward the movie’s end — suggested it wasn’t much fun, or perhaps that those involved weren’t having any.

Yes, it’s cool, it’s fast and slick and engrossing, but a part of me missed the winking. To be clear, I’m not the type of Bond fan who favours Roger Moore, and I wasn’t hoping for over-the-top sight gags. And yet I missed the sardonic edge of a Jean Reno or Jason Statham.

None of which should suggest the production is anything but effective, even exemplary. I love how the actors and director bring unscripted value to the screen. Bourne’s detail-absorbing tours of new locations. Extra-long glances suggesting suspicion without saying so outright. Some of the most satisfying action beats within its genre. In fact, few tricks are repeated, so we just get a sampling, but what’s there is best-in-class: the fight scenes, foot chases, and vehicle pursuits.

A common complaint I have heard involves the so-called shaky cam. That reputation must be a result of the second or third in the series for — while it did appear here — it was hardly dizzying. Perhaps, as an audience, we’ve simply adapted to it. Moreover, I was impressed with the camera techniques: how complex geographies were navigated without confusion, how combat felt energized and impactful, and how Bourne saw multiple “layers” in window reflections.

The sound was equally effective, with particular appeal in the music. John Powell’s score recalls David Arnold’s, with a techno-orchestral hybrid both sweeping and propulsive. I especially enjoyed the elements which supported the story’s themes, faint echoes of percussive hits, looping or in reverse. It didn’t hurt to include great songs by Moby (“Extreme Ways”) and Paul Oakenfold (“Ready Steady Go”).

To end with the corpse of the horse I’ve beat to death, a final Bond comparison. One of my favourite moments in 1995’s GoldenEye is a scene in which Pierce Brosnan grabs a towel to use in a fight. With The Bourne Identity, this appeal has been extended to feature-length, with a down-to-earth hero avoiding guns, resourceful with what is at hand. Though it lacks the sense of humour which has helped 007 survive, the effort was nonetheless successful . . . so much so that even the venerable James Bond was rebooted.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

118 minutes (original theatrical version)

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