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With: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Clive Owen, Julia Stiles, Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Gabriel Mann
Written by: Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum
Directed by: Doug Liman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running Time: 119
Date: 06/06/2002

The Bourne Identity (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Natural 'Bourne' Thriller

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As the "Ben vs. Matt" action hero of the summer skirmish comes to a head, Mr. Damon emerges victorious and smiling his eerily perfect, white smile. The Bourne Identity is a smashing success, and it makes Mr. Affleck's dead-in-the-water The Sum of All Fears seem like yesterday's straight-to-video trash.

Based on a 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, and a 1988 TV movie of the same name starring Richard Chamberlain, The Bourne Identity has endured industry buzz of a troubled production, but this seamless final product by director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go) proves to be smooth sailing.

Speaking of sailing, the action begins as a fishing vessel scoops a body out of the ocean. The ship's doctor nurses the man -- who has two bullet holes in his back and a little laser gizmo imbedded in his skin that projects a bank account number -- to health. Unfortunately, the man (Matt Damon) has no memory of who he is or how he got there.

He makes his way to Switzerland and checks out the bank account, finding a gun, piles of currency from different countries, and handfuls of different passports with different names, the most promising of which seems to be Jason Bourne. Bourne even has an address in Paris.

But before he can be on his way, several unknown heavies track him down and try to arrest him (or perhaps kill him?). Much to Bourne's surprise, he possesses some kind of body-memory of being a skilled fighter and he escapes, but only with the help of a distressed German girl named Marie (Franka Potente) who agrees to drive him to Paris.

Soon both Bourne and Marie are running for their lives, with Bourne trying to figure out who he is and what he did to stir up so much trouble. Just as a small hint, it has something to do with an outspoken African leader named Nykwana Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who continues to cause trouble for Bourne's former employers (played by Brian Cox and Chris Cooper).

Most thrillers blow it by both giving away too much information too soon and relying too heavily on stunts and special effects. The Bourne Identity teeters on the verge of doing both, but happily pulls back just as we're about to lose hope.

Liman and scriptwriters Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron stick to Bourne's amnesia-ridden point of view 90% of the time, and we learn information just as he learns it. Likewise, when they feel the need to give us other, outside information, it's just enough to keep our appetites whetted without shoving the answers down our throats.

In addition, when Liman is obligated to run Bourne and Marie through the expected car chase, he doesn't feel the need to outdo The Fast and the Furious with pyrotechnics and editing. Instead, he raises the level of filmmaking simply by giving our heroes a few moments to breathe when the chase has finally ended. Bourne guides the car into an underground garage, and the pair simply sits for a moment and allow the experience to sink in.

Liman also earns points by casting Julia Stiles and Clive Owen in seemingly throwaway roles, as spies looking to take Bourne down. He allows the actors themselves to bring background and dimension to the characters without overtly telling us anything. In fact, their one scene together contains not one word of dialogue.

Even Potente (who will always be known as Lola from Run Lola Run) brings weight to the "girlfriend" role, the innocent who always gets drawn into these kinds of stories. When Bourne kills a hitman in Paris, Potente looks for all the world as if the blood has drained from her face. In another, more innocent scene, she drives while rapidly spewing the story of her life to cover her nervousness.

Cinematographer Oliver Wood (The Honeymoon Killers, Face/Off) brings a beautiful European feel to the film, draping it in grays and blues, but clearly establishing the cold and the scenery as well -- precisely the opposite effect he achieved in his warm, pastel "Miami Vice" television work.

As for Mr. Damon, his weird blank charm works perfectly in this role of a man without an identity -- far better than it did in the overrated The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's his best and most appropriate performance to date.

I complain all the time about seeing the same ideas in films over and over again, but The Bourne Identity proves, like the recent films In July and Lagaan, that a fresh take is always possible.

DVD Details: Universal has re-released the film in a new 2004 edition in anticipation for the upcoming sequel The Bourne Supremacy. It contains many of the same extras as on the 2002 edition, but now includes a few new featurettes. The box cover boasts an "all-new beginning and ending," which was shot for the film but changed at the last minute. All I can say is that they made the right decision. Frankly, unless you're a huge, salivating fan, there's no real reason to buy the 2004 edition if you already have the 2002 edition.

Blu-Ray Details: In 2010, Universal released the entire Bourne trilogy in DVD/Blu-Ray hybrid editions, with the Blu-Ray on one side of the disc, and the DVD on the other (impressive feat, that). The Blu-Rays are equipped with "BD Live" extras, which you can access if your player is internet-ready (mine isn't just yet). Otherwise, we get a commentary track with director Liman, and an impressive array of deleted/alternate scenes, featurettes, interviews and a music video. The picture and sound are phenomenal.

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