Review: 'Bourne Identity' a nifty throwback
Good performances, zippy direction enhance Ludlum thriller
(CNN) -- "The Bourne Identity," starring Matt Damon, is a blast from the past dressed up as current-day fare. But this retro thriller still packs a powerful punch.
Based on a 1980 novel by the late Robert Ludlum, made into a TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain in 1988, this story about a spy with amnesia -- left out in the cold after a failed mission -- reeks of 1970s paranoia concerning the CIA and the U.S. government. And back in the '70s a rogue CIA operative assassinating the head of a foreign country was a major nightmare for Washington politicians -- not to mention illegal.
Director Doug Liman, who's been an independent filmmaker worth watching since "Swingers" in 1996 and "Go" in 1999, proves he can handle the big stuff with this slick, $60 million action flick. At first glance he seems an unlikely choice for the project, but his edgy style is perfect for this fast-paced nail-biter.
The film begins with Bourne being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea by fishermen. He has no idea who he is, but he's been shot twice in the back, and has a surgically imbedded capsule under his skin with the number to a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank.
As he begins to recover, it becomes clear he has many skills that an average man would not -- for example, he can speak several languages, and he's lethal at hand-to-hand combat.
Searching for ID
He puts these skills into action when he visits the U.S. Embassy in Zurich and quickly realizes something is wrong, very wrong. When the authorities at the embassy try to capture him, he eludes them with a stunning series of moves that resembles "James Bond meets 'The Matrix.' "
Soon it becomes clear that Bourne is a black-operations specialist for the CIA. At the Swiss bank, he discovers several passports from different countries, with different names, but they all have the same picture -- his. There are also thousands of dollars in various currencies. And, of course, a gun.
While in the embassy, he notices a woman trying to get help, to no avail. After his escape -- and knowing she needs money -- he finds her at her car and offers her $20,000 to drive him to Paris. That's the location of an apartment owned by one of his newfound identities, Jason Bourne. German actress Franka Potente ("Run Lola Run," 1999) plays the young woman, Marie. During the ride, he confides in her about his lack of memory, and reveals what he found in the safe deposit box.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, his CIA boss, Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper), is trying desperately to find him -- and kill him. It seems that Conklin, along with a highly placed politician, Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), have secretly launched an illegal black ops unit called Treadstone to take out unfriendly heads of foreign governments. In Bourne's case, the operation involved the radical head of an African country, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (best known for his role on the HBO prison series "Oz").
When Bourne failed in his mission to kill the dictator, he instantly became expendable. With no memory, however he fails to realize that little detail. Now, he and the woman are on the run. In hot pursuit are the out-of-control CIA unit and the secret police of the despot Bourne failed to kill. Look for one of the best car chase scenes since "The French Connection" (1971).
The script by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron has a very weak third act, but it recovers with a fairly nice ending. The ending was reportedly reshot after test audiences reacted negatively to the original final scenes.
The score by John Powell is splendid and underlines the movie's tension, paranoia and fear as the net tightens around our two protagonists.
It also should be noted that Clive Owen ("Croupier," 1999) is excellent as one of the professional hit men sent to kill Bourne.
Although this story seems a bit out of step with the current times, in terms of international espionage flicks it's still a rip-roaring good time. Damon pulls out all the stops -- and pours on the charm -- in this blending of "Mission Impossible," "The Fugitive," and the Bond flicks.
If this film is a hit, you can look for more: "The Bourne Identity" was the first of a Ludlum trilogy that focused on the Bourne character.
"The Bourne Identity" opens nationwide on Friday and is rated PG-13.
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