I'm now on my fourth or fifth viewing of director Doug Liman's "The Bourne Identity", and each time, I find myself gaining greater appreciation for this carefully constructed and well-acted thriller. A troubled production that went over budget and over schedule, the film was originally supposed to be released late in 2001, but was bumped up to Summer 2002. Reportedly, there were a few different endings filmed and additional debate between director Doug Liman and the studio. Maybe the studio was looking for slick action fare, but Liman and company got it right - this is the first big-budget action picture that almost has an art-house sensibility at times. While Tony Scott can make a picture like this suspenseful from being techno-driven and sleek, Liman goes the other route - the ground-level, often subtle feel of the picture suggests danger can be anywhere, which makes for a more tense experience. The film's drawn-out, quiet introductions to two major action sequences still thrill as if I'd viewed them for the first time.
The film stars Matt Damon (an unlikely action hero if there ever was one, but surprisingly very good) as Jason Bourne, a CIA assassin who, as the movie opens, is found floating in the middle of the ocean with two gunshot wounds. Picked up by a fishing boat, Bourne doesn't remember who he is or how he got there, but his reflexes and abilities suggest something fierce.
Eventually, Bourne realizes that someone - namely his boss, CIA officer Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper), who wants to, without giving away much detail, clean up a mess that Bourne was involved in. Bourne meets up with Marie (Franka Potente of "Run Lola Run") and offers her 20,000 dollars to drive him to what appears to be his Paris apartment. That's the set-up - and credited writers Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron (based on the novel by Robert Ludlum) provide enough character detail to stay interested and enough solid action sequences - including a wonderfully filmed car chase - to keep suspense high.
In my original review, I discussed the one issue I have with the picture. While I don't feel quite as intensely about it now, it still bothers me. As incredibly good an actor as Chris Cooper is (see "Adaptation", in theaters now), the scenes at the CIA headquarters really never come together that well, as Cooper tries as best he can to liven up some lines that seem cliched at times. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed the dialogue between Damon's Bourne and Potente's Marie; they have great chemistry together and even a few very funny moments. Damon is an unlikely choice as Bourne, but the resulting performance from the actor is marvelous, involving the audience in learning about the character's mysterious past as the character is learning more facts. Potente is excellent, while Brian Cox and Julia Stiles lend solid support.
Director Liman has also served as the cinematographer on his other two productions, "Swingers" and "Go". His camera work was often terrific, launching the viewer into the middle of the sequence with a "you-are-there" feel and good handheld work. Understandably, Universal probably wasn't keen on a formerly independent director also doing the cinematography on a 60 million dollar feature. For "Bourne", cinematographer Oliver Wood ("u-571") (the film also offers additional photography by Don Burgess ("Cast Away") and Dan Mindel ("Spy Game", according to the Internet Movie Database) does equally fine work, often bringing that same "you-are-there" feel to this larger production. Rather than slick shots from a distance, "Bourne"'s street-level cinematography effectively captures the film's feeling that Bourne's persuers could come from behind any corner at any moment. When not returning to the government scenes, the film gains a remarkable amount of tension.
I'm sure that this film does not stay faithful to the book (reportedly, the film takes only some basic threads and goes from there, but I'm not sure, as I never read it and only recently have started in on a used copy of "Bourne Supremacy"), but I really found it very entertaining on its own. Liman's "Go" remains one of my favorite pictures from the past few years and the director has successfully brought the fast-paced, exciting feel of that film to this big-budget feature. One of last year's best and one of the finest thrillers in recent years.
VIDEO: "The Bourne Identity" is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a very strong transfer of a fine looking film. Certainly not a sleek, slick looking film along the lines of other recent spy thrillers, "Bourne Identity" looks subdued, almost gloomy at times, even though the film's locations are often stunning. Sharpness and detail are very good, although shadow detail is sometimes only fair.
Other than that minor concern, there really weren't any issues with the presentation. Only a bare minimum of edge enhancement is present, while the print used looked flawless. Pixelation or other artifacts are not noticed. The film's color palette showed no flaws, as the natural color palette of the film looked crisply rendered, with no smearing.
SOUND: "The Bourne Identity" is presented by Universal Home Video in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. I saw this film in two different theaters - one an older movie palace that hardly contains much of a sound system, the other a bargain theater that had rigged together a fair surround system only recently. Neither really provided an indication of how strong this soundtrack is. Although not an official EX soundtrack, those with the ability will find that rear surround use does add to the experience on occasion. For example, the opening scenes with Bourne on the ship has the rear speaker offering the creaking of the ship and other subtle effects.In general, it adds nicely to the ambience and general envelopment of the soundtrack.
Surround use in general throughout the picture is marvelous, as the surrounds maintain an almost constant presence throughout, with a mixture of intense sound effects, ambience and lastly, reinforcement of John Powell's score, which is a perfect accompaniment to the tone of the picture.
I found the audio quality to be unexpectedly punchy and fierce, with loud, dynamic presentation of the sound effects. The score recieves the same treatment, sounding remarkably bassy and rich, powering many of the more intense sequences. Audio quality throughout is first-rate, with excellent clarity and natural dialogue. Bass is also full and deep without being overpowering.
Both the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks were very enjoyable, although the DTS seemed to win out in a few regards. The DTS soundtrack offered somewhat greater detail overall, along with tigher bass and a more dynamic feel overall. The differences were not major, but noticable, nonetheless.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Doug Liman, who has contributed excellent commentaries to his films "Swingers" (on the recent Collector's Edition) and "Go", where he was accompanied by editor Stephen Mirrione. Here, he's on his own, but still manages to provide a fantastic full-length track that remains consistently informative. Liman goes through details about several catagories, sharing insightful comments on casting, trying to adapt the book, technical comments, location shooting and production stories (such as positive stories about working with a foreign crew). Throughout, we also get an overall perspective on how Liman crafted the tone and feel of the movie, as well as how he worked in his political ideals into the modernization of the story.
Alternate Ending: An awfully cheesy alternate ending, presented with no commentary.
Deleted Scenes: Four deleted scenes are presented with no optional commentary. I didn't find any of the scenes particularly interesting and their inclusion would have hurt the film rather then helped it. Elsewhere on the "Special Features" menu there's also an extended farmhouse sequence that's not of much use.
Also: A 14-minute promotional featurette, Moby's "Extreme Ways" video, the film's trailer, bios, production notes and Total Axess DVD-ROM features (not live until 1/21).
Final Thoughts: "The Bourne Identity" is an intelligent, subtle spy thriller that consistently mains the suspense and tension throughout. The performances by the two leads are also terrific. It's a film that, in my opinion, gets better with each viewing. Universal's DVD edition doesn't offer much in the way of supplements, but audio/video quality is first-rate. Highly recommended.
The Film *** 1/2