The Bourne Identity

  • Ben's "Longtime Companion"
  • Lola, Only Occasionally Running
  • Enough Cool, Sexy Spy Stuff to Keep Tony Scott Entertained For Two Hours


Directed by a Swinger

"Mr. Damon, did you just ask me if I liked them apples?"

Where's Tony Scott When We Need Him?

The major difference between the books and the films of The Sum of All Fears and The Bourne Identity is a matter of pretension. Tom Clancy thinks he's contributing to the national dialogue by imagining terrorist plots and telling us the names of minor Israeli fighter jets. People apparently think Tom Clancy belongs at that table because you couldn't get him off my television in the wake of 9/11. On the other hand, Robert Ludlum thinks he made a really cool series of spy novels that kick ass. Tom Clancy thinks he's doing important work, whereas Ludlum knows he's dabbling in a romantic world that's a sort of postmodern chivalry, with gunslinging spies in the service of the government stepping in for sword-wielding knights in the service of the king. It's imaginative entertainment, the thick, slick detail of Ludlum his method of making us believe the fantasy, where Clancy's method is the same but is claimed as "realism:" A peek into a world that actually exists, when that world is mostly Ludlum's romance.

Published in 1980, the book of The Bourne Identity is the first in a series of three big, pulpy spy novels in which the CIA has infinite resources at its command and could possibly outwit both Bill Gates and and the KGB if it had to. Matt Bourne is a fighting machine "built" by the agency to do its bidding. "Built" could be used literally: Bourne's face is reconstructed so that he can fit in as easily in Paris as in Beirut. He develops amnesia after a botched job, and spends the rest of the novel using his machinelike skills (which, interestingly, he has no inkling of their source) to reconstruct his identity as a man. The source of evil is a Cuban (or maybe Venezuelan—he's that good) terrorist named Carlos, but unlike Clancy's insulting, implausible hodgepodge of terrorists in The Sum of All Fears, Ludlum uses political ties merely to grant the characters access to lots of money and really cool gadgets. In fact, though the film focuses on a love story, the real love story in Ludlum's novel is between himself and the tools of spy work. As Ludlum writes in a "newspaper article" prefacing The Bourne Identity, "Guns and girls, grenades and good suits, a fat billfold, airline tickets to romantic places and nice apartments in a half dozen world capitals. This is a portrait emerging of a jet age assassin..."

Sounds like a fun movie, doesn't it? Plus, you don't have to deal with Tom Clancy and Phil Alden Robinson exploiting a nuclear attack, with little chance of Jason Bourne needing to be "downwind" from it. If only it were. The story of the novel disappears, which would be acceptable if the film decided to update and enhance it in some way. Yet, the only enhancements are more elaborate security at Swiss banks and the employment of cell phones. This movie is a lot like Tony Scott's Spy Game—equally as pointless, but a lot less fun. First, substitute Matt Damon for Brad Pitt, and instead of Brad getting his ass kicked, add Matt doing some really violent karate. Second, substitute Chris Cooper for Robert Redford, but instead of having Redford play hardball and outwit some bureaucratic suits, trap Cooper behind a desk and have him yell at people to get data markups and image profiles. Doug Liman has several great actors in his film that he entirely wastes: Chris Cooper sweats through his short sleeve dress shirt; Julia Stiles answers a lot phone calls through her headphones; Clive Owen snoops around in some tall grass, and that's about it.

In fact, the style Liman brought to smaller films like Swingers and Go is lost in his desire to make a big fat Hollywood blockbuster. In Go, he constructs the film such that three parallel stories all converge on each other over one late night/early morning in Los Angelos. He cuts the film such that we feel the exhilaration of being young and careless, ready to bust out from behind a grocery counter and head to Vegas. Liman sorts out the stories carefully, but paces them so that we feel the exhilaration of exiting a double shift at the grocery store and then running an errand drug deal for a friend. In this way, Liman does remind me of Tony Scott, whose films often hustle so quickly the celluloid threatens to fly right off the reel. Yet, his camera glides around like David Fincher's, the result being the feel of Mach 5, even if the story itself is still subsonic. But with The Bourne Identity, Liman loses both aspects of his direction. He creates some effective visuals (Bourne capturing a fractured image of himself in a subway window, the world whizzing past him), but the only point to this exercise seems to be Liman's ambition for bigger stars and bigger budgets. Swingers and Go are about making us understand the irrationality of young people when all you live on is raw energy. The Bourne Identity seems to be about getting Matt Damon's star vehicle action movie out before Ben's Daredevil.

I'm still baffled by what Liman had in mind for this movie. As pulpy as the novel is, there's still a decent character study involving the internal dialogue of a man trying to figure out who he is. The film doesn't employ internal dialogue voiceovers, so we're left trying to read Jason Bourne's mind through Matt Damon's acting. Yet, Damon doesn't convey anything but stoicism. He's too cold to be human, but that's precisely what the story requires. In loss of identity stories, the main character has to reconstruct who he is—not just who he is, but in the sense of what kind of person he is. In the book, Bourne thinks he might be a paid assassin, and engages in a real conflict over whether or not he was a "good" guy. Here, such things are barely touched upon. Bourne just goes about the business of kicking ass until he matches a set of passports with a job description. He's in this mess to begin with because the human side of him malfunctioned the machinery of his training, but Damon doesn't convey much humanity in the rest of the film, so the resolution seems too hockey and contrived to be satisfying.

Despite Damon, the film stays above water while Franka Potente entertains the screen. In the book, the love story is a bit perfunctoral, but in Liman's only correct calculation, it steps to the forefront of the film. She brings the same eroticism that energized Run Lola Run, but Liman, for some unbeknownst reason, saddles her in an almost Sandra Bullock-ish girlfriend role. Her character is a freewheeling gypsy, and we're given the idea that her reckless sexuality has left her stranded in the world. Her sexuality should be a weapon that attacks Bourne's human side, thus drawing him further away from his life as cyborg-ish killer, but Liman only gives us a momentary glimpse of the sexual tension between the two. It's not a lasting enough memory to sustain the film, and when Potente leaves the screen, the film falls flat.

If Liman's ambition is to leave IFC to make big Hollywood entertainment vehicles, then I would suggest he rent the entire Tony Scott library. Tony's films may be as weightless as a space station, but there's always something going on underneath. Casting Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in mentor/student roles (and wearing those pink shorts), we know what Tony has in mind for his movie. There's an erotic hum throughout his film, while Liman's is virtually sexless. Perhaps Liman should have taken cues from Christopher Nolan's Memento and the way Guy Pearce would run his hands over his body while reading clues about the murder of his wife. Pearce's performance is erotically charged, helped by the mystery surrounding Carrie-Anne Moss, who seems ready to seduce him at any moment. Memento is the latest great loss-of-identity story in American film, a story about how memory is painted by guilt and desire. What Lenny discovers—or more aptly, doesn't discover—about himself is that the kind of guy he was before the accident, by nature, made him into the unrepentant killer he is after. Conversely, Matt Damon discovers that it's cool to be Jason Bourne.

The Pitch:
1 Go
1 Spy Game
2 The Bourne Identity
See It For:
Matt attempting to bust Ben out of rehab.