Dir: Doug Liman. US. 2002. 118 mins.
One of Robert Ludlum's best-selling Cold War spy novels gets a refreshingly edgy cinema update in The Bourne Identity, an international thriller that, under the guidance of indie director Doug Liman, spins out its Hollywood genre conventions with continental flair. The film opened strongly in the US last month ($39.3m from 2,638 sites in its opening week) on the strength of Matt Damon's relatively limited star power and enthusiastic reviews. Since then it has fought off stiff competition, grossing $93.3m after four weeks. Its international performance could be even better: co-star Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) and the atmospherically shot European locations will help pull in the crowds, while positive word of mouth, coupled with distributor UIP's marketplace clout, should ease extended runs in some major territories. If its overseas performance echoes its domestic one, then it could be the start of a franchise for Damon and Universal Pictures. After the success of his first Bourne book, Ludlum wrote two more related novels - The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum - before his death in 2001.
Liman, who broke through with indie hits Swingers and Go, makes an impressive transition to mainstream movie making. He is helped by an economical script from Tony Gilroy (Armageddon) and William Blake Herron (the forthcoming Ripley Under Ground) which adds some dramatic touches to the narrative thrust of the 1980 novel.
Rescued from the Mediterranean with two bullets in his back and a secreted Swiss bank deposit number, Damon's international man of mystery comes to with a handy range of linguistic and martial arts skills - but no memory of his own identity. In the bank deposit box he discovers a gun, a pile of bank notes and a stash of passports, one of which identifies him as Paris-based US citizen Jason Bourne. Bourne, it turns out, is one of the aliases of a CIA hit man who has just botched the assassination of a rogue African politician. Now Bourne's agency bosses (Cooper and Cox), desperate to keep their assassination operations secret, want their own man eliminated.
The resulting pursuit takes Bourne and Marie (Potente), an intrigued German drifter whose help he enlists, from Zurich to Paris and deep into the French countryside. On their trail are a series of ruthless CIA operatives with instructions to liquidate Bourne and ensure the silence of his companion.
Though the plot eventually takes on a familiar shape - and includes its fair share of confusing loose ends - Liman orchestrates the transcontinental pursuit with considerable skill, punctuating the faster paced segments with interludes in which Bourne and Marie start an awkward romance. The action scenes vary in effectiveness: some are expertly understated, others feel overdone. The requisite car chase is an exciting race through the back alleys of Paris, with Marie's clapped out Mini taking the place of the usual sleek Beemer.
What raises the film above the norm, however, are its less conventional elements. Damon gives one of his most enjoyable performances to date as the powerful but conflicted Bourne and Potente, in her first lead US role, brings a fresh interest and appeal to the character of the reluctant sidekick. Veteran character actors Cooper and Cox ably flesh out their background parts and Julia Stiles appears (surprisingly briefly, given her rising star status) as a young CIA agent in Paris.
Among the off-screen talents, cinematographer Oliver Wood (U-571) and production designer Dan Weil (a regular Luc Besson collaborator) make effective use of the wintry European locations (the film was shot in Prague, Italy and Greece as well as Paris itself). Composer John Powell (Shrek, Face/Off) contributes greatly to the edgy feel with a music score that stays out of the way of the dramatic moments but pumps up the action with techno-flavoured rock.
Prod cos: Universal Pictures, Hypnotic, Kennedy/MarshallCompany
US dist: Universal
Int'l dist: UIP
Prods: Liman, Patrick Crowley, Richard N Gladstein
Exec prods: Frank Marshall, Robert Ludlum
Scr: Tony Gilroy, William Blake Herron, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum
Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Prod des: Dan Weil
Ed: Saar Klein
Music: John Powell
Main cast: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje