Review: “The Bourne Identity”

One thing I’m continually surprised by in my line of work is how poorly read the post-baby boomer generation is in regards to fiction novels. Sure they know their “Harry Potter” books back to back, they read a small variety of things in high school/college, whilst a few admittedly have taken the tough challenge of reading the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. They’re more than happy to shelve out a ton of money for the latest comic book, “Star Wars” fiction spin-off or new thriller by great modern writers like Grisham, King, Crichton, Rice or Clancy but beyond that there’s not much exploration.

One genre in particular that seems to have passed this generation right by is the great spy thrillers of the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s. At a time when the cold war was in full swing, along came a slew of writers who penned some truly great and realistic suspense stories about the intelligence community. When people think spies, the Bond movies come to mind and indeed the franchise is one of my true favourites of all time – each film I’ve watched at least 10-20 times.

Nevertheless you have to appreciate them for what they are, a fantasy of what spies are like as the reality of the business is much less glamourous – take a look at the “Dr. No” film, one of the most realistic scenes in the whole series is a sequence where Bond quietly and calmy questions a geologist (one of No’s henchmen) who then tries to kill 007 only to realise his gun is empty. Modern day Hollywood spies would simply knock the guy out as they’ve gotten all the information they need and this guy is no harm to them, but here and in quite cold fashion Bond shoots him and then when his body collapses, shoots him again in the back to make sure he’s dead.

That’s why these novels were great, sure the villain’s goals were over the top at times but the day to day incidents leading to them were much more real. The works of Frederick Forsyth (“The Day of the Jackal”, “The Fourth Protocol”), Graham Greene (“Our Man in Havana”, “The Honorary Consul”), John Le Carre (“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”), Len Deighton (“The Ipcress File”, and the “Hook, Line and Sinker” & “Game, Set and Match” trilogies), the one offs like Ira Levin’s “The Boys from Brazil” or Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate”, and Ian Fleming’s Bond novels are truly great reads and worth looking up. One of those greats was Robert Ludlum who often wrote stories about the threat of resurgent Nazis, and penned almost two dozen books including the ‘Bourne’ trilogy before his death last year – with over 210 million copies of his work sold.

One problem with this genre though is that these books were written as books, NOT books written with a film adaptation in mind like most modern writers do – consequently film versions have proven rather lacklustre. Ludlum’s books especially relied on gripping drama, complex conspiracies, character interplay and above all the author’s truly stunningly atmospheric use of language and prose which just simply could not translate over into a two-hour film.

That’s why its very hard to sum up a Ludlum book without sounding a little cheesy, and why two of his best – “The Holcroft Covenant” and “The Osterman Weekend” proved truly dud movies despite being fantastic reads. Indeed, much like Stephen King, the mini-series adaptations of his works (ie. 1977’s “The Rhinemann Exchange” and the 1988 Richard Chamberlin-led version of “The Bourne Identity”) have proven better than the aforementioned films but still somewhat lacking.

Now comes Universal’s big budget version of Ludlum’s most famous work – “The Bourne Identity”. The 1980 novel’s central concept, about a man who wakes up with amnesia but the skills of an assassin has since been ripped off quite a few times in film such as 1994’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, yet as a book it remains a compelling read about Jason Bourne’s attempts to find not only his past but hunt down the assassin ‘Carlos the Jackal’.

However, much like the recent “The Sum of All Fears”, key elements of what was in the novel are excised in this film adaptation. Despite a similar setup, the whole pursuit of Carlos is gone whilst the ‘identity hunt’ plays out a little longer and ancillary characters and situations within the CIA have been setup in order to give the slow-burning drama some fast paced action. Surprisingly though it works – the script and story, despite reports of problems, have come together in a slick and trim package which keeps it focus by being a quiet character drama rather than a plot-heavy thriller ala ‘Sum of All Fears’ but like that film it works quite well if not better thanks to more interesting source material.

Director Doug Liman, whose had a solid career so far in film with “Go” – one of the real surprise highlights of 1999, seems a good choice to kickstart what could become a potential new franchise. Whereas the mini-series format allowed the novel’s complicated subplots to unfold like in the book, that doesn’t work in a two hour film and thankfully Liman doesn’t try. Instead he and Damon have opted to concentrate on the main character, his identity search and ultimately a self-realisation style storyline which allows him to grow.

Make no mistake there is quite a lot of action in this ranging from kung fu fights to car chases but a lot of the time they work well as they’re intergrated into the storyline and rely more on real tension and timing than flashy visuals. Indeed, the filmmaking techniques behind the movie feel much more European than American which compliments the varied and picturesque locales throughout the Mediterranean, Switzerland and France where the action takes place.

Performances are solid across the board, whilst its still a little hard to buy Damon as a martial arts expert he nevertheless pulls off his scenes well and displays an obvious respect to both the character and material. Franka Portente is a welcome love interest who underplays it as the woman whose attracted to him but also has a good sense of her self which gives the pair a surprisingly tender and realistic chemistry which is kept on low simmer throughout. Cooper and Cox play one-dimensional but likable baddies, Clive Owen pretty much cameos as a hard-nosed assassin out to kill Bourne and Julia Stiles is wasted in what is pretty much a ‘useless operator’ style role.

Because things are so well underplayed and ‘low key’ as such, mainstream audiences might not embrace it as this is a little slower and less ‘adrenalin-pumping’ than one would expect for a spy movie. Still, I urge you to look closer at what is a rich and deep movie with a great sense of itself and realism – it doesn’t go for the trashy MTV style visual cuts and pontificating of “Spy Game”, or the cold suaveness of Bond, this is a serious tale of a spy filled with insecurities and trying to answer that most difficult of questions – who are you?. Its rare films in this genre are like this, its even rarer that they come out at Summer.