Friday, July 24, 2009
Though published throughout the '80s, Robert Ludlum's Bourne franchise came to the big screen at the exact right time. When The Bourne Identity premiered in 2002, the spy genre was all but dead: the Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears, not one of his more spy-centric novels, did well enough at the box office but felt stale and pre-packaged, and the Bond series had reached the nadir of its self-parody with The World is Not Enough (2000) and Die Another Day (2002). Even the spy piss-take Austin Powers mustered up a gag-inducing sequel to pad out its already-thin franchise into a trilogy; as if the genre needed a parody at that point anyway.
The Bourne series changed all that. The first franchise of the post-9/11 era, Bourne saw through the glitz and glamor of Bond franchises and the like and crafted a gripping, brutal series that favored realism over gadget and sex-filled fantasy. Jason Bourne does not chase people down in Aston Martins outfitted with machine guns and invisibility cloaks; heck, in this film, he's the one being chased. This is a world of "real" cars, of Minis and Peugeots and Ford's European models. The only gadgets at his disposal are items he rigs himself.
Perhaps the greatest shift that The Bourne Identity brings is that it actually engages as a spy mystery. Spy films had grown so bloated that they were either lame comedies or over-the-top action spectacles. The very first shot, like some homage to Sunset Boulevard, shows a man face down in the ocean, presumably dead. A fishing crew recovers his body and a doctor removes bullets and a strange device, and he also discovers some strange documents. The man awakens but has no memory of who he is or what his odd personal effects mean.
The mystery of Bourne's identity, especially when taken in context with the series' sequels, amounts to little more than a MacGuffin. Here, however, it forms the basis of a solid plot, one from which the action flows naturally without ever seeming like the script was built around big stunts. In fact, you could hardly call the action pieces of this film "big": Bourne fights like an actual person, using his martial arts and weapon knowledge to quickly and brutally dispatch opponents. He doesn't need to strap a henchman to a rocket or feed them to sharks to kill somebody. The car chases of the film come the closest to a grand scale sequence, but Liman stresses tension and suspense over action, to great effect. The only moment that ever stands as too over the top comes when Bourne must shoot his way out of a hotel and basically jumps from the highest floor on top of the body of a man he killed, somehow aims and shoots another hitman right between the eyes on the way down, and survives the fall. In an otherwise straightforward film, this is a bit much.
Nevertheless, Bourne's story is filled with perfectly cast, interesting characters who add just as much intrigue as the lead. Marie (Franka Potente), an American citizen who's been backpacking around Europe for years, finds herself caught up in the mess when Bourne offers her some serious cash to drive him out of Paris. Yes, there is an inevitable romance, but it feels plausible, a result of Bourne's kindness and his frequent attempts to get her out of harm's way. Potente, the star of Run Lola Run, knows a thing or two about being on the run for an entire movie, and she has an excellent moment when Jason sends her into a hotel to get his guest records -- he can't as he is presumed dead -- and lays out a complicated plan to sneak through and steal the files, only for Marie to walk out two minutes later with the info, calming stating that she simply asked for them.
Meanwhile, the C.I.A. and Treadstone characters all have a suitable level of sinister intrigue. Treadstone director Conklin (Chris Cooper) reveals early on that Bourne works for the C.I.A., but he doesn't let this spoil the mystery over what went wrong with the trained assassin. You believe Cooper when he sends out other killers (played by Nicky Naude and Clive Owen, who offers up some simple but poignant lines at the end) to terminate Bourne simply because he's a stain on the department's sterling record. His direct superior, Ward Abbot (Brian Cox), has been kept in the dark about Bourne's failure, so he too must sift through the jumbled lies to sort out just who's head will go on the chopping block.
Paul Greengrass would take over the sequels and infuse them with his shaky cam style of shooting (more on that in later reviews), but Liman, previously known for indie fare like Swingers and Go, does a grand job with the fast-paced action. His more traditional approach allows for disorienting chases and fights and calm, stately shots of people conversing or characters silently moving.
So, The Bourne Identity has all the ingredients for a great action thriller: it's contained enough to ratchet up the suspense, but visceral enough to maintain the adrenaline. It proved that Matt Damon, heretofore known for his roles as troubled young men, proves to be an able and bankable action heavyweight, and he's a sight more intimidating than Bond ever was. Despite a few glaring problems -- the aforementioned "flight" down the stairs and that final scene which is just too cute to fit in with the rest of the movie -- this is an engaging ride that wonderfully sets up the best action trilogy ever made.