The Bourne Identity (and a little bit of The Sum Of All Fears)

I do enjoy a good spy thriller. I went out to see The Bourne Identity yesterday evening after Abi had taken Alex upstairs for his bath & bed. I’d wanted to go and see this a couple of weeks ago, but I got to the cinema too late and saw The Sum of All Fears instead.

After all of the rubbish reviews I’d seen and heard of The Sum Of All Fears, I was actually quite surprised that I enjoyed it so much. Okay, so Ben Affleck does a good imitation of a block of wood. Ciaran Hinds plays a ham-accented stereotype rather than a Russian president. And the villain (neo-nazi Austrian billionaire Dressler, played by Alan Bates) seems to have been lifted directly from a Bond cartoon film: there’s even a scene where one of his co-conspirators decides he wants out of the whole evil plotting business, and then promptly gets offed by the enormous Aryan henchman.

But the plot rattles along at a great pace. It’s never dull. And during the times when you know exactly what’s going to happen next, you can let your mind wander to the plot threads that are going on off-camera. Liev Schreiber does a very nice turn as covert agent John Clark. After Director Cabot (Morgan Freeman) activates him, the film cuts over to him several times, each time in a different location. He doesn’t get much on-screen glory, but you know that if he wasn’t busting his balls doing the grunt work of an operative, the story would have run quite differently. And there is one other character working intensively behind the scenes as a spy. I won’t say who it is (spoiler); but when you find out it is him, it casts some of the action earlier in the film in a different light.

All in all, it was a decent action thriller, with elements of espionage and intelligence thrown in. I wouldn’t really say it was a spy film as such, though. It made me want to read some Tom Clancy. Not for Jack Ryan, though–I found John Clark to be the more interesting character by far. (After the film, it was pointed out to me that this is the same John Clark that Jack Ryan supposedly meets for the first time in Clear And Present Danger, where they are played by Willem Dafoe and Harrison Ford, respectively. Yet The Sum Of All Fears is set before Clear And Present Danger. Basically, the films deviate from the books by a considerable degree. But that’s just another argument for reading the books, because there’s going to be stuff that will surprise me despite having seen the films.)

The Bourne Identityis a different kettle of fish. While The Sum Of All Fears concentrates on the players at base, The Bourne Identity focuses on the man in the field: Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Although when the film starts, he has no idea that he is a man in the field.

The opening scene shows him being dragged from the Mediterranean Sea, almost dead, by a French fishing boat. He wakes up, and remembers…nothing. He doesn’t know who he is, what he was doing in the sea, or why he had been shot twice in the back. All he has to help him discover his identity is a tiny capsule, which the ship’s doctor discovered surgically embedded in his hip. The capsule contains the details of a safety deposit box in Swiss bank.

When he gets to Switzerland, he finds that the box holds a fortune in bank notes from a dozen different countries, a gun, and a stack of passports, all in different names, but all with his photo on them. Stunned by what he has found, he goes to the American Embassy in the hope that they might be able to help him. And then he finds out that he’s being hunted. Alarm bells ring, the guns come out, and Bourne is on the run.

The rest of the film is a frantic two-way cat-and-mouse hunt. Until he popped up in Zürich, The secret US government agency that runs Bourne thought he was dead, and they would prefer he stayed that way. They have a vast intelligence network with which to track him, and a cadre of assassins to finish the job. All Bourne has to rely on are his wiles and the skills they gave him, which are so ingrained that even amnesia couldn’t wipe them out. Can Bourne stay one step ahead of his pursuers?

This is secret agent action at its best. The story is nothing new, and using amnesia as a mechanism for progressively revealing the big picture is a classic plot device. (The films Memento, Dead Again, and Roger Zelazny’s book Nine Princes In Amber all come immediately to mind.) But the way it is executed is masterful. Matt Damon, probably not the first person you think of when you hear the phrase “action hero,” does an excellent job of portraying a man who is terrified by his condition, by the people in pursuit of him, but also of himself. He is horrified by what he can do, and what that says about the person he is–or at least used to be.

But in addition to the physical side of his character, you also see the secretive, chameleon-like side. Just after he has been rescued from the water, he spends time looking in a mirror, and asking himself the question: “Who am I? Do you know who I am?” in perfect French and (amazingly!) perfect Dutch. Now, you don’t hear English-speaking actors speaking Dutch on screen very often, but when they try, the attempt is mangled at best. But Matt Damon really nailed his lines. And in Switzerland, we discover he can speak fluent German as well.

Now this may seem like just a little thing. The flow of the film would not have been altered if he hadn’t spent time probing his linguistic capabilities, or if he’d spoken English to everyone he met, and they all spoke English back. (There are, in fact, plenty of times in the film where he does do this, like when he picks up the phone to a hotel in Paris, and then speaks English rather than French.) But just those little hints lend Bourne that extra touch of verisimilitude: here is a man who could go to ground anywhere in Europe, and just disappear. In the film, even after he learns that he is a secret agent and a marked man, he doesn’t do this. Matt Damon’s performance fully captures Bourne’s conflicting desires: to stay alive, but also to get to the heart of his personal mystery, no matter how dangerous that might be.

This is what raises The Bourne Identity above standard spy/action fare. The set pieces are brilliantly staged, but only one of them really stretches the boundaries of plausibility. The rest of the time, you really believe that if anyone could do such things, Bourne would be the man.

One of the weaker aspects of the film was how Bourne’s opposition was portrayed. Chris Cooper plays Conklin, Bourne’s former boss, who now wants him dead. He has the part of a tense, irritable senior intelligence director down pat, but the only times sparks really fly around him are when he is on the phone with Bourne, and when the two if them come face-to-face towards the end of the film. Apart from that, the scenes around the intelligence agency are all pretty standard “I want information, and I want it now” shots. Intense young men sit at computer terminals, intent on tracking down their prey through their grid of databases, surveillance, and informants. Brian Cox is there as well, wasted as a US Senator with responsibility for Conklin’s operations. The only hint we really get of the political complications that must be going on behind the scenes are a couple of pro-forma snarled exchanges. But that’s okay: anything more would probably have slowed the film down, and frankly, you’re there to see Matt Damon kicking some ass.

The main character I haven’t mentioned yet is Marie (Franka Potente). It was yet another nice touch for the film to use a genuine German actress instead of a glamorous Hollywood clone with a fake accent. Just as Matt Damon makes gives Bourne more depth than the average cardboard cut-out action hero, Franka Potente makes Marie more interesting than the traditional female sidekick. When she first encounters Bourne, she is conflicted about accepting his offer and driving him to Paris. When they land at her “friend” Eamon’s place, it is clear that Eamon and her have a lot of shared history, and not all of it pleasant. The film doesn’t explain this history at all–it is left up to the actors to make you believe in the characters. This is the role of an actor. Kudos, therefore, goes to director Doug Liman for giving his actors the opportunity to really practice their craft in the context of an action thriller.

I liked this film a lot. So now I have a chunk of Robert Ludlum on my reading list as well. Abi was kind enough to buy me a copy of The Bourne Identity yesterday, so I can get straight to work on it. (After I finish off American Gods, of course. That’ll be fodder for a different review…)