Despite a legion of loyal readers and zillions of copies sold, Robert Ludlum wasn’t much of a writer. Take it from a guy who, as a teenager, plowed through the entire oeuvre of this failed actor-turned-suspense novelist during a slow summer in his grandfather’s library. Somewhere around The Aquitaine Progression, I realized Ludlum wasn’t the master of thrills that his dust jackets proclaimed him to be. He was the master of recycled plots, huge chunks of fetid prose and some of the most insipidly bad dialogue in popular fiction since the Bible.
Like God, however, Ludlum knew how to write a killer premise. Drawing on the collectively ingrained imagery of film and on the flair of better writers, most of his novels were set up with one tantalizing idea or scene that he gradually betrayed over the following 400 pages. Even the missteps didn’t dull the impact of the opening—or deter a bored reader from picking up the next book.
Director Doug Liman’s interpretation of The Bourne Identity, probably Ludlum’s best novel, is a much more polished work of art than Ludlum could have crafted. Measured and calculated where Ludlum was splashy and erratic, it’s a starkly formal thriller in many ways—an outstanding premise, followed by action scenes interspersed with exposition, followed by a tidy conclusion—with none of the pop-culture references or colloquial dialogue that hamstrings many current films striving for timelessness. In all, it’s a remarkably successful change of pace for both Liman—who made Swingers and Go by staying out of the way of two dynamite screenplays—and star Matt Damon, who got $10 million for his first true action-hero role.
It begins with that killer premise: Damon floating in a studio tank amid rain and lightning. French fishermen drag him out of the drink with two bullets in his back and the serial number for a Swiss bank account on a cool laser projection thingie in his hip. He has no idea how he got there or what his name is. The amnesia doesn’t improve even when his Swiss safe-deposit box (which contains a delicious stew of secret-agent arcana: an array of fake passports, stacks of various currencies and a big black gun) reveals his name is Jason Bourne.
Bourne begins doing detective work on himself, learning about his extensive training and impressive hand-to-hand combat skills with help from a vagabond student (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run) who drives him to Paris. He discovers he’s a CIA assassin who’s been targeted for disposal by his Langley handler (Chris Cooper), and the chase is on.
Liman has drawn on the legacy of standout ’70s thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor and Day of the Jackal to build a solid plotline with coherence and patience that just doesn’t exist in many of the effects-laden thrillers that dominate screens these days. There’s plenty of action in The Bourne Identity, but it’s buttressed by the logic puzzles presented by Bourne’s search. Every haphazard chase through the crowded Paris streets is offset by a reflective moment in which our heroes deconstruct their predicament with their minds, not their fists. Everybody is smart in this movie—always a welcome addition to any screenplay.
Damon handles his role well, with his Everyman demeanor providing a splendid clash as Bourne discovers his cold-blooded past. He’s careful not to get in the way of the film’s mood with overacting, though his scenes with Potente could have benefited from a sexual spark prohibited by the PG-13 rating.
In the last decade, everyone wondered how to make spy thrillers after the Cold War. These days, people are wondering how to do it after Sept. 11. If The Bourne Identity is any indication, we’re going back to the quietly efficient style and sophisticated escapism that started the genre in the first place. Ludlum wouldn’t know how to react—but he’d be glad to cash his check from a movie that’s better than anything he ever wrote.