Monday, May 21, 2018
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'Bourne' winner: Uneven spy thriller is one of the season's best studio films

Let me say right away that The Bourne Identity, the new Matt Damon spy movie based on the 22-year-old Robert Ludlum novel, is the kind of pleasantly dim summer film that I can get behind. For one, it's not that dumb. It's only implausible at times - just enough to keep it fun.

After a splendidly insane dustup between Damon and the entire security detail of the American embassy in Zurich, a scene in which our hero takes out his prey with a few judo chops, random kicks, a vital lunge, and a whole Tae-Bo-Get-Ripped-Advanced-Workout array of dexterous dodges, The Bourne Identity lands a startling blow to our summer-action-movie expectations.

Real human beings seem to have made it and thought about it. I'm reminded of 1970s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View in which everything, especially seen through 2002 eyes, is a little slower and more natural.

Damon plays Jason Bourne - he thinks. He's not sure. The film's first shot is a beauty: The camera looks up from the ocean depths at the dark outline of a body floating in the sea, silhouetted by the blue glow of the moon. Damon is hauled aboard a fishing boat and examined: He is littered with bullet holes and, more intriguing, a tracking device resembling a bullet is buried in his hip.

He also can't remember who he is or how he ended up in the middle of the Mediterranean. He tracks the tracking device to Switzerland, where - what else? - he visits a bank and then heads to the American embassy for answers. We now resume our American embassy scene. Damon has to get out of the building. The entire American army, or at least most of its troops, are hut-hut-hutting to catch him.

He's not sure why, and Damon is so good you always get a sense that he's thinking even when he's not talking. He ducks out onto a fire escape and eyes the roof and, unlike many an action hero before him, is leery of climbing an icy rail and grabbing hold of a gutter. Of course, by this time in your average cynical Hollywood action monster, Ah-nold would have leaped onto a passing motorcycle.

But Damon's Bourne has some grip on reality. The films stunts, for the most part, seem as if they might play out in real life. We discover Bourne's skills as he instinctually learns what they are, and director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go) uses this to lend the film a coziness. (The beautiful, snowy European locations don't hurt, either.) A car chase through the streets of Paris feels 30 miles per hour slower than what we're used to. Even the crashes look slow and authentic.

What's also nice is that The Bourne Identity isn't really about anything, and doesn't intend to be. You're either with it or you're not. Liman, who until now was known for small, energetic independent pictures about hipsters gabbing, uses the film to stretch his talents into the land of big budgets and reiterate what he's good at: keeping any subtext, political or otherwise, buried and making fun the overriding emotion, like a smart beach book.

Fitting for a movie centered around amnesia, there's also a lot that doesn't make sense: How is it that Bourne doesn't know his name but speaks four or five languages? Why does the girl he hitches a ride to France with, Marie (a terrific Franka Potente of Run Lola Run), agree to stick by him when bullets start flying? Do they really have to wipe off their fingerprints all the time when the CIA clearly has their vital information? Maybe it's best to see the film as a musical: totally improbable, but lovable.

Personally, I like my spy movies crazy to the bone, and human. I love that Bourne consults a map in the middle of a chase and that he says “Bear with me” to a phone operator when he could have turned into a barking action hero with a ready put-down. I like Damon's ribbed sweaters and I love how the dialogue is off-the-charts bad to the point where actors seem to ask “What did I just say?” with their eyes.

That said, The Bourne Identity also smacks of major studio tinkering. Every five minutes, Liman flips back to scenes at CIA headquarters in Virginia that don't match the rest of the film. And many of the action scenes have been edited in a frenzied-jumping-skipping-thwacking way that doesn't fit the tone of the film. Too much of the movie feels punched up, as if to fall in line with the typical Hollywood thriller. Wouldn't it have been more suspenseful to stick with Bourne for the whole film, letting us learn who his at-tackers are as he does?

There may be a reason for the Jekyll-Hyde thing: A Wall Street Journal story last month detailed the shoot as out of control, helmed by a talented director who wasn't an obvious choice for a big thriller and who fought the studio's homogenizing hand at every step.

The result suggests both sides won about half the battles - with Universal Pictures maybe dooming itself in the end: The Bourne Identity has been one of the least publicized studio pictures of the summer, and the ironic truth is, it's one of the best.

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