'The Bourne Identity' a good fit for Damon

Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2002

You're thinking to yourself: another week, another spy thriller. And after ''The Sum of All Fears'' and ''Bad Company,'' that's totally justified.

But ''The Bourne Identity'' is different, if only for Matt Damon, who infuses the film's amnesiac anti-hero with intensity and sex appeal. Following ''Good Will Hunting'' and ''The Talented Mr. Ripley,'' among other films, Damon continues to solidify his status as a leading man.

And it's different because of director Doug Liman, best known for the indie favorites ''Swingers'' and ''Go,'' who's trying his hand at the action genre. It's a surprisingly good fit; his pacing is perfect, as usual, and he combines the thrilling moments with a romantic tension that doesn't feel forced.

''The Bourne Identity'' could have been even better, though, if the violence hadn't been so cartoonish. The heart of the film, based on Robert Ludlum's 1980 best seller, is a man trying to figure out who he is, and experiencing simultaneous fear and awe at physical skills he has no idea how he acquired.

Liman seems to have sped up the fight sequences, and every kick and punch lands with the amped-up thwack of a kung fu flick, which seems out of place.

Admittedly, the premise is ridiculous. And the climactic showdown is laugh-out-loud ludicrous. But either you're going to go with a movie about a guy who has amnesia, or you're not.

Damon stars as Jason Bourne, who doesn't know he's Jason Bourne when the movie begins. He's been shot and is rescued at sea by Italian fishermen. Imbedded in his hip is the number of a Swiss bank account.

Back on land, he goes to the bank, and inside a safe-deposit box finds clues that baffle him further: passports with various names, stacks of cash, keys, contact lenses, and a handgun.

While he's searching for his identity, CIA agents are searching for him. So he recruits German drifter Marie (Franka Potente) to drive him to Paris, where he believes he lives.

And the cat-and-mouse game is on, with traces of Liman's adrenaline-driven style evident throughout -- in Bourne's escape from the U.S. embassy in Zurich, and later in a car chase through the streets, alleys and stairways of Paris, complete with pounding techno music.

Marie is in tow as Bourne's unwitting partner at first, but the longer she stays with him, the more she wants to stay with him.

Screenwriters Tony Gilroy (''Proof of Life'') and William Blake Herron nicely reveal details about Bourne's identity, allowing us to discover who he is just as he does. But they barely flesh out an assassination plot involving an African leader.

Some of the talented supporting actors aren't used nearly as much as they should have been either. Clive Owen, so completely in command in ''Croupier,'' shows up a few times here and utters maybe two sentences as an assassin out to get Bourne.

Brian Cox merely gets to storm through the hallways at CIA headquarters, and Julia Stiles looks alternately stunned and sullen as a member of the secret team that's searching for Bourne.

Chris Cooper, though, gets to tear up the scenery as a high-ranking CIA agent, snarling and growling in frustration every time Bourne slips through their fingers.

And Potente may seem like an unusual choice to play opposite Damon -- unless you saw ''Run Lola Run.'' She's warm and vulnerable, alluring without being traditionally beautiful, and her German ancestry injects the story with just the right authentic touch.

''The Bourne Identity,'' a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for violence and some language. Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars (out of four).

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.



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