“A new action hero is Bourne.” As incredibly cheesy and precious that advertising tag line for “The Bourne Identity” is, there’s no discounting the truth it does hold. Yes, it heralds a new potential action franchise character in Jason Bourne, and the film also reveals a different type of action hero in director Doug Liman, who further proves his multifaceted moviemaking mettle with his deft steering of this change-of-pace project. All more’s the pity that much else about the film ultimately can’t quite keep up with Liman.
An action hero that isn’t quite born is star Matt Damon, who, much like the script for this adaptation of the 1980 Robert Ludlum novel, does not completely measure up to his task. Damon plays amnesiac spy Bourne, and he and the film as a whole are at their best in the early stages. After being rescued from certain death in the seas, Bourne follows a vague clue literally implanted in his hip and travels to Europe to piece together his forgotten past. But there are shady forces working to keep him from relearning the truth — forces that, in their efforts to eliminate him, reawaken some of Bourne’s special spy skills, namely those in the martial arts. The sight of Damon kick a*s was a bit jarring in the trailers, but it is less so when Damon throws his first punches and kicks within the context of the film, for Bourne is just as taken aback by his abilities as the audience is, and Damon nicely plays Bourne’s tabula rasa state. It only follows, though, that as the film progresses so does Bourne’s comfort with whom he discovers himself to be, and Damon remains too much of a blank as Action Guy mode kicks in more strongly; the “tough” dialogue doesn’t emerge from his lips terribly convincingly.
Also not convincing is a forced romantic subplot between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente), the young German woman who gets caught up in Bourne’s search for himself. Quite tellingly, if one scene were trimmed down a bit, the love story would’ve been lost entirely, and the film would have been better for it; Damon and Potente click as a team, but they don’t exactly make for romantic combustion together. While she may not be the best screen paramour for Damon, Potente proves to be the real thing acting-wise in her first big-league English language role. Without the flaming red hair of her star-making role in “Run Lola Run,” the effortlessly likable Potente easily holds the screen, even in the perfunctory “girl” role she’s saddled with here. But at least scripters Tony Gilroy and William Blake Heron give her a character to work with, which is more than be said for other talented actors filling out the ensemble, such as Julia Stiles (merely marking time as the baddies’ resident computer expert) and especially Clive Owen, who is competely wasted as a barely-seen and -heard evil operative.
The one person whose personality is strongly heard and seen throughout is that of Liman. His sure hand with comedy as seen in “Swingers” and Go gave no indication that he could do such an adept job at an adventure film. He briskly paces the action, keeps the film interesting on a visual level, and capably handles all the set pieces, from the fight scenes to a much-talked-about car chase, which is more notable for the unusual finesse of its choreography than its speed.
How disappointing it is, then, to see Liman’s considerable skills at the employ of such routine material. All the style cannot make up for the flagging energy level of the narrative, which lumbers toward an anticlimactic conclusion that leaves behind too many unanswered questions. The need to leave a back door open for sequel opportunities is understandable, but the various holes and few hints at explanations (let alone actual explanations themselves) are far from satisfying on any base level. If nothing else, the wrap-up to “The Bourne Identity” makes one interested in seeing the inevitable sequel, but one is also left to somewhat question the worth of sitting through this first installment.