A Star is Bourne
Director Doug Liman, director of Go and Swingers, brings panache to The Bourne Identity—based on the first of novelist Robert Ludlum's Bourne series (Mr. Ludlum, to whom the movie is dedicated, died in March 2001)—concocting a highly stylized, yet exciting, ride. The picture stars Matt Damon as Jason Bourne.

From the opening scene's murky figure of a lone man, The Bourne Identity is permeated with dark hues, moonlight and changing shapes. Liman matches every element—color, costume, music—to his purpose: creating a fast, smart spy thriller. The result is thoroughly engaging—a classic couple-on-the-run motion picture with a nod to Le Femme Nikita.

Damon is satisfying as Bourne, a man who wakes up after being rescued in the stormy Mediterranean having no idea who he is, from where he came or how bullets became lodged in his back. After being nurtured back to health by a friendly fisherman, Bourne is off to discover himself, armed only with a Swiss bank account number.

It's when he discovers the contents of the bank account—a weapon, fake passports and vast sums of money—that Bourne (that's one of his names) begins to suspect he may not end up liking himself. The intrigue, involving the CIA, an African political leader and assassins, is secondary to the mystery: Who is Jason Bourne?

Damon's role requires a bare minimum of expression and he fits the bill, though romantic scenes are perfunctory. That brings us to The Bourne Identity's emotional center: Marie (German actress Franka Potente, Run Lola Run), the woman with whom Bourne becomes entangled. Potente's messed-up ragamuffin is searching for herself, too, in a sense. So, we are more invested in this punkish innocent driving her tinny Mini Cooper than we are in the robotic Bourne, who pounds lead and kickboxes at a moment's notice. Marie—who is vulnerable, not helpless—is why Bourne's journey matters.

There's plenty of action and suspense and the whole reckless trek across Europe is set to an infectiously modern, moody score that mixes techno-rock with an understated (and underused) main instrumental theme. What really makes The Bourne Identity work is Liman's apparent devotion to Ludlum's novel as the primary source.

The protagonist is not tricked out in the latest gimmick—no one crouches, flies or wears a black trenchcoat—and The Bourne Identity almost discards the obnoxious Hollywood habit of assaulting the senses with gory outbursts and loud explosions. With the exception of the unexplained miracle of his early wounds and blurry fight scenes, Jason Bourne and his story are believable. Bourne bleeds—the story moves quickly—you care about what happens.

Standouts in the cast include Julia Stiles ( Save the Last Dance) as the icy Nicky, the CIA's key Paris operative and Chris Cooper (the coal mining father in October Sky ) as rogue CIA agent Ted Conklin. Among the movie's highlights: a simple, old-fashioned car chase, gently accompanied by heavy percussion and an electric guitar.

There are gaping plot holes, though, including Marie's and Bourne's involvement—they are both too smart to get trapped in later binds—and an underdeveloped action climax is built around a disappointing, visual thrill. Still, the theme that man is essentially self-made remains intact.

Robert Ludlum's legion of fans will undoubtedly notice that the novel's central villain, Carlos, is completely absent in Liman's Bourne. In real life, Carlos, whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, is also known as the Jackal, an Islamic terrorist from South America who was named after the founder of the communist Soviet state.

Like Damon's friend Ben Affleck's summer thriller The Sum of All Fears, the novel's terrorists have been expunged from the movie, though perhaps the Jackal will emerge in the next two Bourne installments (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.)

Nevertheless, The Bourne Identity is a stylish spy story that recasts the cliché of finding oneself as an intoxicating game with rich rewards.

DVD Notes

Including interviews with the movie's leads and features on stunt choreography, Robert Ludlum's literary trilogy, a psychiatrist commenting on Jason Bourne's condition, amnesia, and an espionage expert, The Bourne Identity's Explosive Extended Edition isn't as exciting as it sounds. But the solid movie more than gets its due.

An alternate beginning and ending, among the deleted scenes, are on display and each viewer can judge for himself whether they work better than the final version's start and finish. The best feature is probably the action bit—dubbed Inside a Fight Scene—though the interview with Matt Damon is also worth a look. Footage of an interview with Franka Potente is sparingly used. Noticeably absent from this DVD: director Doug Liman.

Publisher's note: Review revised by the author on July 31, 2007.