Tuesday, August 9, 2016

From My Collection: The Bourne Identity Movie Review

I’m revisiting the original trilogy of Bourne Movies after seeing Jason Bourne. I guess that’s backwards, but the inspiration didn’t strike until I found myself disappointed in the new movie. Seeing how frenetic the editing was, I felt that Paul Greengrass had taken his style to an extreme. I didn’t recall that the two he directed were similarly edited.

I certainly remembered that The Bourne Identity, the first film in the series based on Robert Ludlum’s novels, was stylistically more conservative. It was directed by Doug Liman, who had cut his teeth on the comedy Swingers in 1996. Then in 1999 his Pulp Fiction for kids Go served as the transition film to Hollywood action. He directs with a certain style of cool, his characters always laid back and in control even in the most severed of situations. Think about the repartee between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as married assassins trying to kill one another in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Sure, The Bourne Identity doesn’t have the same playfulness in its tone, but it is slick and you can sense that the actors are settled. They have confidence and they behave like their actions are second nature. And that’s not true only of Matt Damon as the title character. He may be the principal player whose character operates purely on instinct, having had rigorous training regimen to prepare him to become a ghostlike CIA assassin, but everyone else from Chris Cooper as Conklin, the head of the CIA program known as Treadstone that made Bourne, to Julia Stiles as Nicky, the logistical support for the program in Paris always know their next move. They behave like well-trained professionals and not like trained actors pretending to be well-trained professionals.

What I love about The Bourne Identity is its premise of a man trying to discover who he is. His retrograde amnesia has caused him to forget his biographical details, but his survival skills, facility with multiple languages, and combat training are all still intact. Imagine waking up one day to discover that you are, in fact, a trained killer who has committed assassinations. Jason Bourne, as he knows himself now, wants no part of such a life, but he’s being chased and doesn’t know why. He takes a young woman he meets in Zurich along with him and inadvertently gets her in the crosshairs, and then gets her former companion and his children in danger when they take refuge in his house in the French countryside.

When an assassin (Clive Owen) comes for him there, it sets up the film’s best sequence as Bourne outwits his assailant. First he’s tipped off by the missing dog, then everything from blowing up the gas tank as a diversion to his use of a flock of birds to determine where the assassin is hiding is just brilliantly conceived. It’s a great example of an action scene that relies much less on action than on building suspense and advancing the narrative. So much of the action in The Bourne Identity is low key, small scale, and all practical. The use of CGI is almost non-existent. The big car chase takes place in Paris and involves old-fashioned stunt driving, great camera work and even better editing. It’s so much better than what Greengrass put together for the finale of Jason Bourne.

Matt Damon is one of those actors with both movie star charisma as well as fierce talent. He went at this part full throttle such as to fit with the taut intensity that Liman imbues the whole film with. All the acting is very good. It’s better than just the serviceable performance style that we often get in action movies. Cooper, Stiles, and Brian Cox as CIA Director Abbott all bring something different to the story. If the film has one weak link, it’s in the character of Marie, though not in Franka Potente’s performance, whose motivation for sticking with Bourne after she has driven him to Paris and got her money is suspect. I also think that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s performance as Wombosi the Nigerian despot in exile is exaggerated to the point of being a wee bit offensive.

One of the beautiful differences between this and Jason Bourne is the smaller stripped-down scale. The CIA analysts work out of what might best be described as a shabby basement office. There are desktop computers, scattered papers, and a whiteboard. It looks like a place where people spend all day shuffling papers and analyzing data. As the films have progressed, these settings have become more tech heavy, owing in large part I’m sure to increased film budgets. But I prefer the team of about four people scrambling on computers and trying to use their wits to track the elusive Bourne.

The Bourne Identity, more than any other in the series, feels more real, more like the way a spy agency would have to operate. They are not all-knowing. They rely on judgment and occasional bad info just like anyone. All of which makes for a far more interesting narrative in which the stakes are higher for Bourne as well as his adversaries.

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