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'Bourne Identity, The'

'The Bourne Identity' is a nearly thrilling chase

Friday, June 14, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Alfred Hitchcock is frequently quoted to the effect that suspense (of which he was the master) derives from the audience knowing something that a movie character doesn't. His most notorious example occurs in "Sabotage," which finds the villain using a boy to deliver a bomb set to explode at a certain time. As the boy dawdles en route, the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

 
 
'The Bourne Identity'

RATING: PG-13 for violence and some language

STARRING: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper

DIRECTOR: Doug Liman

WEB SITE: www.thebourneidentity.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

By this definition, Doug Liman's adaptation of "The Bourne Identity" should induce us to climb the walls. In fact, this is one time when we would have been better off having no more information than the protagonist.

Freely adapted from Robert Ludlum's novel, the movie begins with a man being fished out of the Mediterranean Sea with two bullet holes in his back. Barely alive, when he awakes he has no idea who he is.

He finds out soon enough that men packing very impressive heat are out to get him, but not why. He also possesses impressive martial-arts skills and a natural ability to size up a room -- who's in it, who might be dangerous, where the exits are.

In both the novel and the 1988 miniseries version that starred Richard Chamberlain, we learned things only as the character did, which made the story that much more intriguing. It bonded us to him completely -- we wanted answers as much as he did, and we could sympathize with the frustration he felt at having just bits and pieces to go by.

The new film, which stars Matt Damon, takes the opposite tack. Director Liman and screenwriters Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron almost immediately identify the people chasing Bourne. That is pretty much all we need to know why they are doing it, and it doesn't take much of a leap from there to deduce his identity.

That wouldn't be a bad thing if the movie intended to be a character study masquerading as an action thriller, but it's kind of hard to flesh someone out when he doesn't know his own name. A really clever screenplay could do it, but "Memento" only comes along once in a film buff's wildest dreams.

Liman, who directed the very hip "Swingers" and the vastly overrated "Go," handles the action scenes better than one might expect from a guy best known for smaller, more intimate movies. Damon is perfectly serviceable as a common-man action hero with uncommon skills. Chris Cooper, as the guy in charge of the people chasing Bourne, doesn't get to be much more than bluntly determined. Brian Cox is largely wasted as one of Cooper's associates, and Clive Owen gets one good scene as an assassin.

The best casting choice was German actress Franka Potente ("Run, Lola, Run") as Marie, the aimless young woman who gives Bourne a ride from Zurich to Paris, not knowing what she's letting herself in for. Along with the film's authentic locations, she gives the movie a European flair that will either distinguish it from your everyday Hollywood spy thriller or else remind you of how such movies used to be handled in the 1970s.

"The Bourne Identity" turns out basically to be a chase movie that holds up rather well as long as you don't ask too much from it in the way of characterization, motivation or full explanation.

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