'The Bourne Identity': THR's 2002 Review

The Bourne Identity - H - 2002
The Doug Liman-directed movie does capture the pulp verve of those 1960s Cold War thrillers.

On June 14, 2002, Doug Liman and Matt Damon's thriller The Bourne Identity hit theaters, kick-starting an action franchise that has spanned five films so far. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

Mired as we are in a world of finger-pointing between the CIA and FBI over ignored terrorist threats and holding our collective breath over unimaginable wars on the Indian subcontinent and in the Middle East, it's refreshing to relax in the purely fictional realm of a slick espionage thriller like The Bourne Identity.

While hurting for any sense of romance or meaty character interaction, the Doug Liman-directed movie does capture the pulp verve of those 1960s Cold War thrillers directed by the likes of Guy Hamilton and Terence Young. A top cast headed by Matt Damon and Run Lola Run's Franka Potente, Dan Weil's superb design work in a production filmed in Paris, Prague, Italy and Greece and John Powell's pulsating score all ease us comfortably into that shadowy movie world of assassins and spies. Domestic and overseas box office should be brisk.

Breaking form with his usual low-budget, youth-oriented essays in Southern California lifestyles, Liman (Swingers, Go) embraces the spy genre with enthusiasm. While there's never a dull moment, the film, derived from a Robert Ludlum novel, is too mechanical and plot-driven to veer very far into character. Indeed, the key to the movie is that its hero has no identity: Damon's character suffers from amnesia.

Pulled from the cold Mediterranean by an Italian fishing boat, the man has no memory, carries a bullet in his back and a Swiss bank account number embedded in his flesh. Deposited on shore several days later, he swiftly realizes he possesses lethal fighting skills and a hair-trigger response to events. A safe-deposit box in a Zurich bank yields cash, a gun and a trove of passports. He selects one, belonging to a Jason Bourne of Paris.

Within moments he is identified by CIA operatives — or are they rogue operatives? — and finds himself trapped in the U.S. embassy with its entire Marine guard determined to capture him. He makes a nifty escape, then encounters Potente's Marie, who is something of a spontaneous gypsy. Good thing, because he offers her $10,000 to drive him to Paris in her red Mini, and she accepts.

In Paris, the couple must survive an assassination attempt and an exhilarating chase, often against traffic, through streets where the tiny Mini has an advantage over police cars. Back in CIA headquarters, Chris Cooper's Conklin sweats every near miss in a secret enclave the agency apparently doesn't know exists, while Brian Cox's Ward Abbott pressures him to "clean up" the mess. Throw in an assassination attempt against an ex-African leader (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and a new one against Bourne by a sharpshooter known as the Professor (Clive Owen), and our heroes are dodging bullets, karate chops and other lethal weapons for nearly two hours.

Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron's script updates Ludlum's 1980 story without shying away from the preposterous. The Memento-like gimmick of a man struggling to understand who he is and why some people want him dead gives the frantic chase an added dimension. Cinematographer Oliver Wood shoots the moody European streets and ominous countryside in cool tones, while the camera — often operated by Liman — nervously searches the landscape for predators.

Damon and Potente go for likability as there is little time for character nuances: They're simply an attractive couple in a mad search for one safe, stable place where they can access their situation and each other. Cooper, Owen and Cox all play no-nonsense professionals for whom trouble-shooting and shooting people are synonymous. Unaccountably, Julia Stiles turns up in a minor throwaway role. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on June 10, 2002.