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The Bourne Identity

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
The Bourne Identity
from Film Forum, 06/13/02

Need a vacation? For the price of lunch, you can have a whirlwind tour of Paris, Prague, Italy, and Greece in the company of an assassin who is trying to dodge bullets fired by his own employer. It's a scenic ride, but be warned: The Bourne Identity is intense, violent, bite-your-nails-to-the-quick thriller.

Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne in this second film version of Robert Ludlum's famous cloak-and-dagger novel. Bourne is an assassin who has lost his memory; fishermen discover him floating unconscious on the stormy Mediterranean Sea and awaken him to a living nightmare. He doesn't know his name, his job, or his way home. He discovers right away that he has extraordinary talents for close combat and quick thinking. And he learns all too soon that he is a hunted man. Jason is an employee of the CIA, which is in far worse shape in this film's fictional reality than it is in recent headlines. His supervisor (Chris Cooper wearing a scoundrel's sneer) has aggressively assigned all other assassins on the team to hunt Jason down because he failed an assassination attempt and risks embarrassing the team. Jobs are at stake. So Bourne goes on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of his mysterious foes, enlisting the help of a monetarily challenged, German-born beauty who agrees to drive him back to Paris and, of course, falls in love with him along the way.

Doug Liman, director of Go and Swingers, keeps the film running at full throttle from the opening scene. I spent most of the two hours on the edge of my seat. Liman gives the film a slick '70s style, saturating the urban landscapes in cold blue, always highlighting the important elements in red (a money bag, the lead car in a chase, a phone booth). The film's strongest virtue is its cast. While it requires some serious suspension of disbelief to accept young Matt Damon as a hardened, experienced assassin (the part would have been better served by George Clooney or Russell Crowe), Damon gives it all he's got, basically playing another Good Will Hunting with a hodgepodge of martial arts skills. Halfway through the movie I realized that it is Damon's feature-film audition for a regular part on TV's Alias. Nevertheless, the film is stolen by Bourne's sidekick; Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) brings great comic timing to a role that could easily have been merely shrill and panic-stricken. She's fascinating, and I wish the film had slowed down a bit to let her explore the character further.

The film's frenetic pace costs it dearly. The Bourne Identity is not much more than a well-executed series of action scenes, stunts, quick kisses on the run, and an exhilarating car chase. The story might have explored the philosophical implications of a man fighting for "the good guys" who finds out that the good guys aren't so good, and that he is isolated from his own country, his own cause. As the Bob Dylan song says, "It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord / but you gotta serve somebody." But this is a summer action movie, and Bourne is all business. The relentless gunshots and explosions never give him a moment to consider alternatives to his assumption that he is alone in the universe. Thus he concludes that there is no one worth serving but himself. And ultimately, that will be a disappointment as well.

David Denby (The New Yorker) calls it "a pleasant enough way of mislaying a couple of hours. The handsome old buildings of Paris and Prague … are easy on the eyes, and the action moves swiftly from one location to the next; the dialogue is pungent, the violence amusingly far-fetched. Still, there's a fatal lack of purpose. The problem is Matt Damon. He doesn't bring anything besides rage and physical energy to this role. Damon may be too young, too unformed, to play an amnesiac. Gazing at that blank face, we can't imagine that Bourne has any experiences or memories to forget."

Check back next week for other critical responses to the film.

from Film Forum, 06/20/02

Last week, Film Forum offered an early look at The Bourne Identity. Over the weekend, other critics chimed in with their reviews of this slick new thriller from director Doug Liman. They disagree over whether Matt Damon has what it takes to play Jason Bourne, the amnesiac assassin who discovers that his employer is seeking to kill him. But everyone seems pleased with the dynamite supporting cast, especially Franka Potente (Run Lola Run).

Dan Buck (Relevant) looks at the film's impressive strengths. "Some films do great things that are remembered for years to come. The Bourne Identity, however, has its strengths in what it does not do. The natural tendency might be to try and outdo the other films with bigger stunts or outlandish characters. … Liman opts for more subtle methods of standing out. The film successfully incorporates the 'less is more' principle to its dialogue. Awkward, terrifying and even romantic moments are punctuated by absolute silence. No chatty characters, no jokes, often not even a musical score. It's a risky move. Few directors are comfortable with silence, but Liman uses it like an artist uses negative space."

Only religious press critics have spent much time pondering the film's perspectives on right and wrong, and its use of symbolism. While impressed with the craftsmanship, Buck is troubled by the film's perspective on morality. "The audience is left with a worldview that trusts no one and yet asks us to believe in love."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) highlights multiple spiritual illustrations. "Jason learns that he has a tainted past … he was a sinner. His past sins threaten to create separation in the only friendship he has. He needs redemption and salvation from the past to gain new life. His past sin has resulted in his present death sentence. 'The wages of sin is death.' How can he be saved? Salvation begins with a relationship with Marie (a variation of Mary) who is unconditional in her favor and kindness (grace) towards Jason. Redeeming love."

Bruce also finds meaning in Bourne's search for identity. "Jason goes on a quest for truth. He needs to know who he is, where is he from, where is he going, and who his enemy is. As truth comes to light the darkness is dispelled. The evil ones are defeated. Truth sets him free. … Ludlum has come up with a character that embodies all the fundamental questions of life. I think I had a religious experience just sitting there in the movie theater!"

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) spotlights the excellent cast: "Damon succeeds not only in making his character a credible super-operative, but also in humanizing him and making him sympathetic in spite of who and what he seems to be, while Potente is equally persuasive in conveying both the fear and the attraction Jason inspires in her character. Their relationship is credible and even involving, if deeply problematic. The Bourne Identity … might easily have aspired to be something more; but by the same token it could easily have wound up being something less. It sets medium-range goals for itself, and nails them solidly."

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) calls it "Well-crafted and intelligent (mostly) … topnotch entertainment." But he complains that it becomes "excessively violent, extremely loud, and with the usual amount of objectionable language and sexuality replacing thoughtful dialogue and romantic interludes."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) credits "the taut direction of Doug Liman … the crisp editing of Saar Klein … and the solid performance of Matt Damon." But he faults the scriptwriters: "Their treatment contains a fair number of plot holes and leaves a few significant questions unanswered. Such inconsistencies, however, are only momentarily frustrating and, as we choose to ignore them, the engrossing situations which the characters face will draw us back into the story."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "the perfect movie for those who can appreciate a well-written thriller. [Liman] knows how to create and build tension in every scene. I enjoyed this intense, action-packed, satisfying thriller, and I can assure you, you'll be thoroughly entertained!"

A critic at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "The energetic camera work keeps apace with the narrative's quick twists and turns, and for the most part the action doesn't let up. The Bourne Identity is a basic spy story that's been intelligently updated without switching story for gadgetry."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) disagrees: "It's hard to see … that this movie will appeal to anyone with any sensibility." He says it might appeal to "teenagers who feel alienated or who love violent video games." And Paul Bicking (Preview) rejects the film for "frequent and sometimes graphic violence … [and] tasteless vocabulary."

Mainstream critics are split. Charles Taylor ( raves, "Liman manages a certain tough-mindedness here without giving in to cynicism or hopelessness. … The Bourne Identity invokes a different kind of nostalgia: the memory of what it's like to go to a Hollywood movie and be treated with decency."

Roger Ebert says, "Liman … directs the traffic well, gets a nice wintry look from his locations, absorbs us with the movie's spycraft, and uses Damon's ability to be focused and sincere. There comes a point at which we realize there will be no higher level to the screenplay, no greater purpose than to expend this kinetic energy. I kind of enjoyed The Bourne Identity. I had to put my mind on hold, but I was able to. I am less disturbed by action movies like this, which are frankly about nothing, than by action movies like Windtalkers, which pretend to be about something and then cop out."