director: Doug Liman
starring: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen
running time: 121 mins
rating: 12

“How could I forget about you? You’re the only person I know.”

Jason Bourne

When most Hollywood action films are now sold almost on special effects alone, it is delightfully refreshing to find an espionage thriller that is able to blend in just as much intelligence.

Found floating in the Mediterranean Sea by fisherman, Jason Bourne [Matt Damon] is suffering from severe amnesia with no way to explain the two bullets in his back, or the bank number embedded in his hip. On land he discovers his identity from a passport in the security box being held under that number. Only then does he find the box also contains a gun and several more passports, each under a different name. With the CIA hunting him down, Bourne must discover the truth behind his identity, aided by Maria [Franka Potente] who becomes unwillingly caught up in the chase.

The most striking thing about The Bourne Identity is its superb pacing. Varying between tender moments of reprise and tense sequences as Bourne flees his pursuors, Liman manages to maintain a fugutive sensation throughout, never being able to rest for quite long enough. The tension is also maintained through Bourne’s lack of knowledge of his own abilities, which manifest themselves suddenly. The first such occurrance is when approached by Swiss policemen, his perfectly precise reflex attack lasting only moments before both are on the ground. One of the film’s best moments is when Bourne eerily reveals to Maria while in a diner that he can recite the licence plate number of every car parked outside, but doesn’t know why.

The action is always swift and sharp, rapid outbursts of gunfire or shouts breaking through what is generally a very quiet film. When it does appear, however, it is of very high quality, like Bourne’s climb down the embassy wall, and most notably in the gripping car chase through Paris, one of the best for a long while as we see his hardwired skills surface again (and how often do we get to see what a superspy can do with a Mini Cooper!?). A prime example of the film’s intelligent manipulation of the audince’s tension appears at the end of this chase, having evaded their pursuors, where rather than a quick quip, the pair quietly sit in the car regaining their composure and realising they have to clean it of fingerprints and dump it.

Damon at first appears a little young for the role, but his acting is of a high quality throughout. He is not only able to carry himself ably through the action sequences (which are nothing too stretching or original) but also reveals more depth to his character, portraying bpth his frustration (Maria inquires about his taste in music and he cannot answer) and a tortured side that does not like the history he is discovering about his identity and would rather start afresh. Potente skillfully changes what could be a standard “spy’s girl” role into something far more interesting through her lively charisma. Clive Owen’s creepy and mostly silent hitman was perhaps underused, and Julia Stiles’ small role as an inexperienced dispatcher was often unconvincing (arguably due to her lines rather than performance).

Liman’s greatest move is in letting the characters drive the story, and the developing relationship between Jason and Maria is given as much screen time as the exhilerating stunts. Nothing about the film appears overly contrived, and the sets and locations lack the usual Hollywood flavour. Paris is painted as rather grim and sterile, while the wintery European countryside is beautiful but bland. Most impressively, the CIA office is a realistic basement office filled with standard computers, rather than the ludicrous technophile palaces we are usually offered.

While it may lack, as a result, the hi-tech style and panache of the James Bond franchise, The Bourne Identity wins out through its compelling intelligence in script, content and appearance. While Hollywood is cluttered with gadget-driven espionage films these days, imaginative cerebral thrillers like this rise rarely. And since author Robert Ludlum also wrote two sequels to the novel this is based upon, perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jason Bourne…