In the summer of Spider-Man, it's hard not to see Robert Ludlum's famous Jason Bourne for what he is — a super hero for readers who have outgrown four-color Spandex chronicles. Bourne is as much a model of male perfection as Peter Parker — mind like a steel trap, reflexes measured in nanoseconds, full complement of martial arts skills. Ludlum, knowing that his über-man needs a nearly-magical origin that's not quite as fantastic as a radioactive spider bite, explains Bourne's powers by making him a spy so elite he's unknown even to the FBI; trouble is, folks with that kind of pedigree do some unpleasant things for a living. The author resolves that moral dilemma — you don't get to a Ludlum/Clancy level of mainstream success by asking readers to identify with a heartless assassin — by making his character an amnesiac, with all the skill of a black ops agent and none of the messy guilt to carry around. The viewer, living Bourne's life vicariously, gets to have his cake and eat it, too.
Matt Damon, who in movies such as Good Will Hunting and The Talented Mr. Ripley has always been convincing playing unusually smart men, is a perfect match for the role, thanks to both his intellect and the boyish innocence he carries with him. It helps sell the notion that Bourne has totally lost contact with the side of himself that once killed strangers on command.
A tantalizing glimpse of what he once was is provided by Clive Owen (of Croupier), one of the agents sent to kill Bourne; Owen is the epitome of icy cool, never speaking until his last, oddly touching scene. (A nice in-joke: Owen, who starred in the series of short films commissioned by BMW last year from highbrow directors, jumps into this film's action behind the wheel of a Beemer.)
Director Doug Liman, whose Swingers gave no indication he'd be suited for this sort of thriller, does an admirable job here, bringing a number of sequences to life with wit and imagination. In one, Bourne clings to the side of a building (like a spider, you might say ...) and Liman's camera perches below him just after a high angle — conferring a sense of weight to the man on the ledge just as featherweight snowflakes shake off it and drift to the ground. In another sequence set in the countryside, Liman gives us a chase in which the hunter becomes the hunted, and the efficiency with which he conveys Bourne's thought process is truly graceful.
The director does make a couple of small fumbles: A car chase is broken into too many short shots, keeping it from feeling like the real thing; the music Liman chooses for many of the action scenes — watery techno here, generic hard rock there — lacks oomph. But those are minor complaints, and on the whole the moviemaking is quite impressive.
Though the film feels more action-heavy and less cloak-and-dagger than it might have in another era, Liman isn't afraid to let the action pause for a stretch every now and then, giving the tale a feeling of serious-mindedness you don't always get from these things. That seriousness is just the thing novelists like Ludlum have been using for years to help adults to enjoy their super hero stories without feeling like they're slumming.
The Bourne Identity
"Smart post-Cold War kicks"
Dir. Doug Liman; writ. Robert Ludlum (novel), Tony Gilroy et al; feat. Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (PG-13)