There's nothing more satisfying during a summer of event movies than to discover a spy thriller like "The Bourne Identity" that's packed with just as much intelligence as action.
Adapted from the slick and savvy novel by the late Robert Ludlum (whose two sequels are waiting in the wings), the picture stars Matt Damon in a sharply focused performance as a mysterious man found floating in the Mediterranean Sea with two bullet holes in his back and a wicked case of amnesia.
He speaks several languages ("Stop messing around and tell me who I am," he admonishes himself in a mirror in German and French). He possessed lethal instincts and martial arts skills, which he discovers much to his own surprise when he takes down two police officers who harass him after he's come ashore in Prague. He knows somebody with a lot of clandestine power is trying to kill him, and his only clue to their identity and his own is a tiny laser pen found embedded under his skin that projects an account number at a Swiss bank -- where he discovers a safe deposit box packed with cash, forged passports and a gun.
Directed by the understated and resourceful Doug Liman ("Swingers," "Go"), this is a film in which even a seat-gripping car chase through the streets of Zurich bristles with brain power as Jason Bourne (he got his name off one of the passports) out-foxes a dozen police cars by maneuvering a Mini Cooper at break-neck speeds down crowded sidewalks and a flight of narrow stairs.
Yet one of the movie's best scenes is the 30 seconds or so after he hides the car in a parking garage following the getaway. In a moment when any other action movie would opt for the clever quip ("I hate Zurich traffic!"), Bourne and the German girl he's offered $20,000 to drive him to Paris ("Run Lola Run's" fantastic Franka Potente) sit silently and let their adrenaline subside while they mentally regroup, realizing they have to abandon the car and wipe it clean of their fingerprints.
In the mean time, Liman takes us to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., where a supervising agent played by Chris Cooper ("American Beauty," "October Sky") is holed up in a bare basement office, desperately trying to figure out what Bourne is up to while taking heat from above for risking exposure of a clandestine mission. It turns out our hero blew an assignment to kill a former African dictator who was writing a book on the CIA that was going to name names. Now the target has gone public with accusations and Cooper thinks his man has gone rouge, so he's activated every Agency assassin in Europe to track him down and take him out.
Liman and Damon do a brilliant job of tapping into Bourne's frustration and the tingling instincts that keep him alive as he hunts for answers. You can almost see the wheels turning in his head during a daring, wall-crawling escape from a U.S. Embassy during an early scene in which he's still disoriented but aware enough to realizes he's being flanked by guards.
The director practically reinvents the modern fight scene, bringing excitement to shoot-outs and mano-a-mano martial arts showdowns in a way that is as methodical and unhurried as the fights themselves. He never resorts to MTV-style editing, and uses the film's score of energetic electronica (by often-experimental composer John Powell who scored "Face/Off," "Antz" and "Shrek") as the background track it should be.
Like "Ronin" and the first "Mission: Impossible" film, "The Bourne Identity" is a complex espionage-fueled action flick that respects the viewer enough to let you connect some of the dots yourself. As the plot thickens and assassins on Bourne's trail are directed through a nervously inexperienced dispatcher (Julia Stiles) in a Paris safehouse, screenwriter Tony Gilroy ("Dolores Claibourne," "The Devil's Advocate") doesn't spell out every little detail. He trusts you to figure out how Bourne tracks his attackers back to the safehouse and tricks Cooper into coming to Paris and showing his cards.
Best of all, Liman lets the characters drive the story, with tense, suspenseful and emotional moments between Damon and Potente (who is much more than the traditional cinema spy's arm ornament) given as much weight and screen time as the tense and exhilarating stunt scenes.
Nothing feels contrived in "The Bourne Identity," even during the few scenes that raise questions (how does Marie know a body at the Paris morgue has been identified with one of Bourne's aliases?). And with the exception of a slick, screen graphic-intensive introduction of the assassins out to get our hero, the picture hardly feels like Hollywood at all. The European locales are not presented as postcards and Cooper's realistically dreary basement CIA office looks like anything but the production designer's high-tech wet dream you get in other spook movies.
I'm a big fan of the spy genre, and don't get me wrong -- I love James Bond flicks. But I'd take this kind of sensational, cerebral thriller over cartoony gadget- and stunt-driven pictures any day of the week.