June 28, 2002

The Bourne Identity: Talent assembles to kill time

A few years ago, someone writing in American Heritage's "Overrated/Underrated" issue called Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity the most underrated spy thriller of all time. Judgments like "most underrated" are tricky because by the time one gets around to noticing the single most underrated whatever—a band, a spy thriller, a baseball front office—it's no longer actually underrated but mildly overrated. In terms of spy thrillers, then, the makers of The Bourne Identity were approaching something like hallowed ground, or as close as you can come to hallowed ground with a book sold primarily in airports. Adapting the book was thus a dicey proposition to begin with, a proposition made all the more dicey by director Doug Liman's advising screenwriters Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron not to read the novel before writing the first draft of an updated version of Ludlum's 1980 novel. Liman himself was a risk on a movie like this: although his previous output—"Swingers" and "Go"—were really just serviceable genre films, they were the sort of highbrow escapist fare that makes Liman imagine himself an artist and not merely a craftsman. He would thus approach a major studio action picture like this fully conscious of the fact that he's slumming: his cast may include vaunted actors like Matt Damon, Brian Cox, and the always reliable Chris Cooper, but their collective talents are being assembled for nothing more than a slickly made, entertaining B-picture. The problem is that slickly made, entertaining B-pictures are more often than not made by total hacks. Winking at the material is the first step to wilting it.

These worries are probably a little overblown. Although it will not satisfy fans of Ludlum's Bourne trilogy, and while it's a little too affected for its own good, The Bourne Identity is an at least passable compression of everything enjoyable about the spy thriller genre, complete with the obligatory beautiful European locations, gunfights, and car chases. Damon stars as the title character, an amnesia victim rescued off the coast of Marseilles by an Italian fishing crew. Bourne has no idea who he is but finds he has an extremely good knowledge of languages and self-defense, as well as access to a numbered Swiss bank account. Meanwhile, at CIA headquarters in Langley, an intelligence team headed by Cooper's Ted Conklin seeks to cover up a recent botched assassination attempt against an exiled African dictator who had threatened to reveal details of his dealings with the agency. It takes approximately thirty seconds to figure out who Bourne is and why his life is in danger (and that's assuming you've never heard of the books)—the only real mystery is how long it will take Bourne to figure it out.

It takes longer than expected. After finding his Swiss bank account contains a collection of fake passports, the keys to an apartment in Paris, a small arms collection, and thousands of Swiss francs in cash, Bourne remains in the dark. The fact that he knows how to fight his way out of the US consulate in Zurich after being cornered by security forces does little more to illuminate his past. Of course, it's probably irrational to suppose that you had been a CIA assassin prior to your memory loss, and perhaps for this reason Bourne is able to convince himself he needs to go to his home in Paris, after arranging a ride from a Swiss student, played by Franka Potente, just as slow to catch on as Bourne himself. Never mind the amnesia machinations; the end result is that we get to see Paris as well as Zurich and Marseilles, and the team of international assassins following Bourne (led by Clive Owen's Professor, who is every bit the equal of Bourne) only promises more gunfights and car chases.

Movies are often criticized for being nothing more than conscious exercises in style; that danger certainly exists here, but I'm unclear on what the negative consequences of it may be. Great art, after all, is not going to come out of the spy thriller genre. Robert Ludlum was not a great prose stylist, as entertaining as his plots may have been, and a director like Doug Liman is not going to attempt to stake his career on this movie. Thus his awareness that he's bringing a special kind of polish to the genre—that a car chase has never been filmed this elaborately, that an action movie climax has never been this underplayed and thoughtful—is mildly annoying but not ruinous. The simple truth is that when this much money and energy is brought to bear on something designed simply to be watched, enjoyed, and then disposed of, failure is rarely a consequence. Something good will come out of the production, provided nobody tries too hard, and the usual notes are struck: the villain, the mysterious but sympathetic hero, the girl, the chase, and the exotic locations. The Bourne Identity knows exactly when to go to the well, and the result is a movie worthy of an—allegedly—underrated airplane read.