Timepass with attitude
Face-off with Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity
An Italian fishing boat fishes out the body of a man (Matt Damon), floating out at sea.
The body has two bullet holes in the back and a laser projector sewn into the hip. The projector, in infrared, displays the name of a Swiss bank and an account number.
The man awakes with no memory of who he is, of what happened to him, and why he was within a toucher of feeding the fishes. In a bid to find answers, he travels to Switzerland --- and to a series of surprises. He surprises himself when he effortlessly takes out two police officers trying to arrest him; he is surprised when, at the bank, he finds he owns a safety deposit locker that contain documents identifying him as Jason Bourne, passports and identities from several other countries, large amounts in varying currencies, and a gun.
Bourne empties the locker, dodges the local police by ducking into the American Embassy, finds himself surrounded and escapes via a display of wall-crawling that makes Spiderman look leaden-webbed.
On his way out, he bumps into footloose French waif Marie (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run). Bourne flashes money --- $20,000 worth. Marie needs money. And so Marie runs with a man who doesn't know what he is running from.
That is all you get by way of storyline --- to reveal more would be to play spoiler, even if the Robert Ludlum novel on which the story is based is 22 years old. The thing is, the book and the movie are not exactly symbiotic --- the film claims only nodding acquaintanceship with the book's storyline.
What sets this apart from the stereotypical chase film is the protagonist's desperate search for identity --- an agony etched well enough to persuade us to buy into it, and into him.
And if this gives the film its soul, the Bourne-Marie relationship gives it the Bonnie and Clyde dynamic that provides the cutting edge. Spy and/ or chase flicks tend to use the female lead as eye candy. The Bourne Identity, refreshingly, uses Potente's Marie to counterpoint, and complement, Damon's Bourne.
The chemistry between the two is palpable --- and results in some stunning set piece scenes. Like the one where Jason cuts and styles Marie's hair as part of an effort to disguise her. The way she tentatively, yet deliberately, invites the kiss is well done. The scene could, in hammier hands, have become a routine exercise in skin shows and steam production --- but Damon and Potente underplay it just enough to get your blood pressure in a mess.
Or take the wild car chase through the streets and stairways of Paris.
The scene is superb on its own, and it is easy to see why they reportedly needed to use nine identical Mini Coopers to film it. But dramatic though it is, the sequence merely sets up the scene where Marie pulls her car into a garage at the end of the chase. Jason and Marie just sit there, in silence, letting the adrenaline wash out of them --- and a scene that could so easily have ended up on the cutting room floor becomes, thanks to the dynamic between the lead stars, one of the best scenes in the film.
The cast and crew are in fact what gives this film good, strong legs. Matt Damon, with his pretty boy face and aw-shucks smile, is not the first name you would think of when casting an all-out action flick. But the Talented Mr Ripley star slips effortlessly into the dark role of a man who knows how to kill without knowing why he kills or who he is.
Potente as the female foil is equally brilliant. The attractive actress excels in a role that requires fine-edged portrayal to prevent it --- and her --- from falling into the Bond-girl stereotype so common in action flicks. The role has shades --- and Potente has the talent to carry them off. Like when the fists first fly --- and she responds by throwing up. Or like how she conjures up erotic undercurrents through a touch, a look, a kiss.
Chris Cooper (American Beauty) and Brian Cox (The Rookie), play a pair of conspiring CIA types; the enormously attractive Julia Styles (Save The Last Dance), seems a tad underused as Cooper's gofer; and Clive Owen (Greenfingers, Croupier), plays the most dangerous of Bourne-hunters with sufficient panache to outlive a hokey death speech.
When I first heard that The Bourne Identity was coming out in film form, my reaction was "uh-oh". The 1980 Robert Ludlum thriller was, for me, a rite of literary passage --- a book that, along with the likes of Eric Van Lustbader's Ninja and Shane Stevens's By Reason of Insanity, took me out of the Perry Mason-Sherlock Holmes-Agatha Christie box and into the wider world of the thriller.
My memory of the book being, therefore, particularly strong (and rosy), I wondered how the extremely complex tale could be simplified into movie form. The doubt was amplified by the reports I had read of how the 1988 TV version of the book, starring Richard Chamberlain and Jocyln Smith, had turned into a clunky, clumsy exercise.
The film's answer, it turns out, is simple. Screenwriters Tony Gilroy (Dolores Claiborne, The Devil's Advocate), and William Blake Heron took just one element --- the amnesiac Bourne, with the talents of a finely honed killing machine --- and wrote their own story around it.
The treatment has its advantages --- the original novel is one of those wheels-within-wheels potboilers that would have made for a confusing --- and long --- film. The way Gilroy and Heron have written it, the multiple storylines of the novel are cut out, Carlos the shadowy international assassin, who is central to the Ludlum novel is done away with. And the CIA subplot of the novel has been turned into the main source of villainy.
The downside, though, is that the last 15 minutes of the film do not live up to the initial promise. There really is no suspense left, leading into the overcooked climax. The sparse use of dialogue is a plus, though. Having recently sat through the Anthony Hopkins-Chris Rock starrer Bad Company, I am grateful Gilroy and Herron did not succumb to the temptation common to action writers to string together a series of 'funny lines'.
Not that there is no humor in this film. The laughs, though, are subtle, and blended beautifully into the action. Like the scene where Bourne, of the incredible espionage skills, sets up an elaborate plan to obtain a piece of essential information --- and Marie simply walks up, asks a question, and gets what he wanted without any fuss.
Cinematographer Oliver Wood (Face/Off) shoots mostly through a dark blue filter, to produce a stylish look. And composer John Powell (Face/Off, Shrek, Antz), delivers an energetic, classy electronic score. The fight scenes (Nicolas Powell --- Birthday Girl, Still Crazy), are not extended slugfests but carefully choreographed combat sequences as economical of movement as they are brutally efficient.
If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon elevated traditional martial arts to high fantasy, The Bourne Identity takes the modern fight scene and recreates it as an unhurried, almost balletic exercise. In the process, Powell comes up with some great sequences: the American Embassy scene where Bourne scales down a wall with scarcely credible ease; in the small-car chase sequence and in a classic confrontation in Bourne's apartment that showcases brilliant hand-to-hand combat.
Powell, however, blots his copybook in a completely off-the-wall climax that has Bourne using a dead body to parachute down five floors. Barring that blip on the action landscape, TBI is slick in its use of the stunt sequence.
Cast and crew, thus, are a good assemblage of talent. And the glue holding it all together is director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go).
By all accounts, the film --- begun October 2000 and budgeted at $52 million --- has had a rocky ride to the marquee. Despite the presence of two screenwriters --- plus a lead actor in Damon, who had won an Oscar for screenwriting with Good Will Hunting --- the film was being rewritten and reshot almost till the last moment.
One climax was junked --- and with it, the $1.5 million it had cost to shoot. Other climaxes were discussed between studio (Universal) and director, and almost led to the director walking out. The film, as finally released, is nine months past the original release date, and $8 million over budget.
None of this shows in the final product. For this, you would need to credit the director. Liman's style is sparse, vigorous and devoid of the hi-tech wizardry that the action genre has made into its USP.
Eschewing 'fx' for the most part, Liman uses characters to drive the story, and uses suspense, emotion and action --- and finely honed editing by Saar Klein (The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous) --- to keep you riveted.
CIA stories are today anachronisms; action movies are --- in the summer of Spider-man --- a glut on the market. The Bourne Identity is not without its gaffes. Like, why would a man trying to be invisible lug around, almost through the entire length of the film, a distinctive red bag?
And yet, and yet... book your popcorn and your tickets. This film is timepass, with an attitude.