The new James Bond film, "Die Another Day" (due this Thanksgiving), has a lot of work cut out for itself. Plainly put: James Bond, meet Jason Bourne. Bourne is faster, looser and more prickly than Bond ever was. As much as I adore the Bond franchise, I can't say I've ever been as giddy over one of those films as I am with "The Bourne Identity" (IMDb listing).
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a cold blooded assassin, but he doesn't know it. He can kill anyone with just a glance, yet he doesn't even recognize his own name. Left for dead when a hit goes wrong, Jason is rescued from his watery grave in the sea and stitched up by Italian fishermen. Set loose in Europe, Jason tries to put the pieces of his life together (including his rapidly emerging ability to inflict violence when prompted) as it becomes clear that this dangerous and mysterious man is suffering from amnesia. Bourne is helped by Marie (Franka Potente, "The Princess And The Warrior," "Run Lola Run"), a German woman desperate for cash, who takes Jason out of the dangerous hive of Paris to safety, but soon finds herself in deeper trouble than Bourne. On their tail are two dueling government agents (Brian Cox, "L.I.E." and Chris Cooper, "American Beauty") who would like nothing more than a dead Bourne, and a team of assassins who are sent out to finish the job.
The poster for "The Bourne Identity" screams: "Matt Damon Is Jason Bourne." Honestly, they couldn't be more right. In perhaps his biggest star performance to date, Damon conquers his new film with the authority of a Schwarzenegger, and the sleekness of a Brosnan. Trust me, you've never seen Damon quite like this. It's an ass-kicking glory that would make Will Hunting mess himself in fear. His performance is elaborate, moving back and forth from a man who doesn't understand what he's capable of, to a man who uses his capabilities to answer all his questions. With his natural physicality, Damon can play the role easily. But with his ever-searching actor instincts, Damon finds shades within Jason Bourne to play with; just enough to elevate the movie into territory Bond stopped trying to reach three decades ago. Damon's chemistry with Potente is also a treat, as the film never veers too much into romantic territory, but leaves enough room for the heat between the two to seep through. They work very well together.
The real star of the picture is director Doug Liman, formerly of the anemic 1996 comedy "Swingers," and the appealing 1999 caper "Go." There is nothing in those two films that would suggest that Liman is capable of handling a spy thriller. And that's the beauty of "The Bourne Identity." It's a story (here based on the best-selling series by Robert Ludlum) that's been in play many times before, and Liman takes the challenge head on. Directing with a dazzling flair for tension and action set pieces, Liman conducts his "Bourne" very simply and efficiently. There are minimal explosions, no godforsaken quips from the lips of the characters, and the film is one of the fastest paced in recent memory. It's an efficient, glossy little creation that puts to shame all other contenders, including last holiday's "Spy Game," a film with which it shares a great deal. I keep harping on the subject, but imagine what the Bond films could do if they carried this much straight-faced enthusiasm? They would be creating classics with each new entry, not just serviceable entertainment.
Liman is helped by fantastic European locations (shot crisply by Oliver Wood), an exhilarating score by John Powell ("Shrek"), and a swift script by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron. But you can easily tell Liman's heart and dedication is really into the story and the characters. His heart is into the action as well, with the film containing many impressive hand-to-hand combat scenes that feel fresh and real, a mid-movie car chase that spells doom for any fingernails in the audience, and a climactic shootout that has Bourne literally riding another bad guy down the middle of a staircase. Wild, unpredictable moments like these are scattered throughout the film, and they make the ride that much more pleasurable. Liman has a clear vision for "The Bourne Identity," and his mission is accomplished. This is one terrific movie.
Filmfodder Grade: A