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Friday, June 21, 2002

Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

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 the on-line 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 The 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 next.

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 home.earthlink.net/~dleheny