The Bourne Identity
Back in March1999, Hollywood learned a painful
lesson. Two films had been expected to dominate the box office for
easily six months or more: The Rage: Carrie Two and The
Corruptor, with Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg and Chow "Fatty Fat" Yun
Fat. But they opened the movies on the same weekend, and both films
ended up being outperformed by sleepers like
Star Wars Episode One: Ju Ju Bee and the Menacing Phantom.
Many people have now forgotten that the two movies were ever made, and
everyone involved with them now denies that the two movies even existed.
But this looks like a lesson Hollywood is due to
relearn. In one weekend, Hollywood has released three
extraordinary motion pictures, any one of which would dominate in a
lesser year. John Woo's Windtalkers is the powerful true story of
Navajo codetalkers in World War II, whose Marine "protectors" were under
orders to steal the Navajos' land back home in the event that they were
captured. Scooby-Doo: The Motion Picture is the powerful true
story of an animated dog who fights ghost criminals with the help of his
human friends, a rock-n-roll band known as Hole.
I had a touch choice to make, so I flipped a coin
between those two, though I didn't catch it, and it rolled under my
recliner couch (my favorite piece of furniture; it has a drink holder
big enough for a Super Big Gulp). I tried to get the quarter, but my
fingers ended up in something dark and sticky, which I think was a
Ding-Dong I kicked under there one night two weeks ago when I was a
little drunk. I hope it was that. Anyway, that worked out, because there
was actually like a 33% chance that I would drop the coin and it would
end up somewhere that I wouldn't want to touch, so I took that as the
sign that I should go see the third movie, called The Bourne Identity.
Like the others, it is a powerful true story, but it is
also based on a novel by Rober Ludlum, who won the Nobel Prize for
Literature. Because Philip Roth had it in for Robert Ludlum, who always
got more women than Roth did, Ludlum never once won the National Book
Award or the Pulitzer Prize, both of which were busy sucking up to Roth.
I know; it boggles the mind. But Sweden doesn't answer to The Man – The
Man named Philip Roth – and in 1993, Ludlum won literature's highest
honor, narrowly edging out Jackie Collins. The Swedish committee praised
Ludlum's commitment to adjectives, especially "sinister."
I was planning to read The Bourne Identity before
seeing the movie, but it's roughly 4000 pages long, so instead I read
description of Gina McDonald's book Robert Ludlum:
A Critical Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997). You know, it's
amazing that given Ludlum's importance in 20th century literature, there
aren't more books about him. In this one, the author "uncovers the
serious themes running through the novels: the role of the individual in
preserving democracy, the value of competing voices, the failure of
educational institutions to preserve ideals, the temptations of power,
the importance of personal loyalties in the face of impersonal
organizations, and the nature of evil." Could one film actually talk
about all of that?
I know what you're thinking: Divine Secrets of the
Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I guess you could make a case for that too, but
the themes are even more evident in The Bourne Identity. Jason
Bourne (Matt Damon) is an assassin who messes up a mission, gets shot,
and then wakes up but can't remember anything, which makes the CIA mad,
so they try repeatedly to kill him. But because Bourne doesn't remember
anything, he doesn't know why people are so mad at him.
Fortunately, he remembers how to fight, and shoot, and
run, and drive, and lots of other things. In fact, a lot of The
Bourne Identity is like a mystery, because here is this guy in
Europe, and he speaks English, French and German, and he's been shot
twice, has a metal device implanted in his hip, which has the number of
a Swiss bank account, but clearly he is not a professional soccer
player. Who is he? Well, his body showed signs of a struggle, and he was
shot and didn't surrender, so he figures out that he's not French. And
his body does not jerk as precisely as it should when he hears some
Kraftwerk on the radio, so he learns that he's not German. His Swiss
bank has a safety deposit box has lots of stuff that indicates he's a
spy. Then he realizes that he doesn't speak Arabic, and that he
seriously botched up his last mission, so he is able to determine that
he is CIA. He then beats to death a Guatemalan peace activist with his
bare hands, just to see if he enjoys it, which he does. Mystery solved,
or at least, most of it.
But Bourne has other problems too, like the fact that he
has gotten a ride across Europe from a nice German woman (Franka Potente,
from Run, Lola!), and he can pay her only with $10,000 and the
probability of a brutal, early death. CIA death squads are recalled from
all over South America to take out Bourne, anyone who helps him, and the
African man that Bourne was supposed to kill in the first place.
Because it's a traditional spy thriller set in Europe,
the film feels a lot like the 1998 flick Ronin. A lot of you will
remember that my complaint about that movie was that spies don't look
like middle-aged, out-of-shape tough guys like Robert DeNiro, Jonathan
Pryce, and Jean Reno. Real spies are more dapper and cultured, something
that Doug Liman gets entirely right. By using all the members of the
band "Spandau Ballet" as the CIA hit squads, Liman perfectly captures
the well-dressed, cocktail-sipping feel of international espionage. One
assassin kills a waiter for improperly holding the liteau while pouring
him a glass of red wine.
A lot of the credit for the astonishing success of
The Bourne Identity goes to Matt Damon. Damon is most famous for
being friends with Ben Affleck. Together, they won an Oscar for
co-writing "George Will Hunting," about a math genius at MIT who becomes
a conservative columnist. They also wrote the screenplay for both The
Bourne Identity and Affleck's new
Sum of All Fears. Many people might think that Damon is
perfectly cast simply because his weathered features and his world-weary
face really make you think of a morally troubled assassin. But he also
manages to make Bourne the most laid-back amnesiac spy ever, even
nodding off at the wheel during the film's seventh (and penultimate) car
chase. Other brilliant actors are electrifying in their huge roles; in
one scene Brian Cox and Chris Cooper exchange greetings, look at each
other awkwardly for a few seconds, and then say, "Wonder what Bourne is
up to right now."
I do too, but I'll bet I won't have to for long. Ludlum
wrote three Bourne novels before his untimely and highly suspicious
death at the age of 104. I'll bet the Liman and Damon will be back with
The Bourne Dauphin and The Bourne Spaniel soon -- and long
before Matt Damon agrees to be in some Philip Roth movie. I hate Philip
Roth. I don't need to read one of his so-called "books" to know that,
either. I'm real people smart, not book smart, and it really bothers me
that Roth would try to prevent Ludlum from winning the Pulitzer.
You know, I just dropped my remote control under the
recliner couch, and I had to get that, so I solved two mysteries myself.
First, it wasn't a Ding-Dong down there; it was a Ho-Ho, which I think
was from last month. Now I'm glad I thought about it and stopped myself
before licking the sticky brown stuff off my fingers. I think those
things can go bad. There was this one kid who got e coli or something
from an old Ho-Ho. He will never enjoy a Hostess snack cake again. Also,
I found that quarter. It was tails. So I guess Scooby Doo is up
Anyway, whatever I see next simply can't be as good as
The Bourne Identity, certainly the best spy film since Spy
Kids, and maybe even earlier. I predict that Matt Damon will have a
new "Identity" next spring: as an Academy Award Winner!
On a scale of four or five stars, I give The Bourne
Identity four-and-a-half stars.
Earlier positive movie reviews
can be found at