The Bourne Identity (2002)

Anything Ben Affleck does, Matt Damon is liable to do (and vice-versa). In a summer when Affleck has starred in a big budget, current affairs-influenced spin on the airport blockbuster espionage novel (The Sum of All Fears), Damon trots (indeed, runs) along in the same month with a similar vehicle; next year, with Affleck in red lycra as Daredevil, I imagine Damon will find himself a superhero costume. The Bourne Identity (from the Robert Ludlum novel that was once made into a TV miniseries with Richard Chamberlain) is a much stronger piece of work than The Sum of All Fears: it has a less-unwieldy relationship with the too-fast-developing world of real-life politics and plays as a far more concentrated couple-on-the-run thriller, cannily teaming Damon's 'Jason Bourne', an amnesiac realising in lurches that he's a CIA-sanctioned invisible hit man, with Franka Potente as the sort of rootless girl government stooges hate because she's lived in dozens of places and left so little footprint (some rent in one country, a telephone number in another). It lets us in at the outset, with some byplay between doesn't-want-to-know-the-details politician Brian Cox and CIA black ops chief Chris Cooper, the answer to the mystery Damon is exploring, and then lets us watch everybody run.

Damon, ordinarily rather a smug screen presence, is at once off-balance and in terminator mode as the man with no memory who is still instinctively able to beat off hordes of armed men and escape from the tightest spots. If the romantic chemistry between Damon and Potente doesn't quite spark, the uneasy mix of dependence, irritation and terror that keeps them together, initially in her adorable and versatile battered old mini, plays pretty well. The trauma revealed in the last-reel flashback is nicely set up by a few sub-moments in which the hero is reluctant to endanger innocents, especially children, as we see he failed his initial mission (the murder of an Amin-like exiled African dictator Adewale Akinnuoye-Agabaje) because the target was crawling with kids - it's a little facile, and far less affecting than an earlier moment between Bourne and another assassin (Clive Owen), whom he has beaten and who regrets the things he's been asked to do as he dies.

Doug Liman, of Swingers and Go, makes a better fist of bringing a fat novel into the 21st Century than Phil Alden Robinson: there are the expected techno-scored computer graphics linking locales and characters, and the chases and fights are all pumped up with sound effects that make all gunshots and blows sound like explosions and edits that emphasise the impact, but mainly the film keeps its characters on the move, packing every scene with peril as Bourne makes his way down from a derelict fire escape on the American consulate in Switzerland, has a moment of reflection in his characterless French safe house (concluding from the few books that he was in shipping, when actually they were research material for a specific imposture) before a killer crashes through the window, invariably clocks the undercover men or closing-in uniformed cops and soldiers on the streets, scavenges a shotgun to go up against the better-armed Owen in the snowy French countryside (a shot that scatters birds confuses the ultra-sensitive Owen), etc. It may be just an entertainment, but it's at least a professional one.

First published in this form here.

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