The Bourne Identity (2002)
Reviewed 2001-07-02: OK, this is my Bourne Ultimatum: Don't take a novel that was filmed before (for TV in 1988) and done better, and trash the plot of a novel that's old enough to vote, and then release it on an unsuspecting public, all the while pretending that it's based on Robert Ludlum's best spy story. Is that too much to ask?
Here's the problem, as I see it. Ludlum's Bourne Identity succeeds both as espionage thriller and as good storytelling because his assassin-who-loses-his-memory premise was really about a man struggling to understand his inner demons. Ludlum kept you guessing as to whether Jason Bourne really was an assassin, or whether he was a decent man trained to appear to be one for another purpose. The Doug Liman film asks the viewer to sympathize with a man (Matt Damon, who is likeable enough) who really is an assassin, not a sophisticated lure to catch another assassin. The intricate plot of the novel has been betrayed in the new movie: we have Jason Bourne, we have his hostage-turned accomplice, Marie (a powerful Franka Potente), and even one of Bourne's handlers at Treadstone, Conklin (a strong showing from Chris Cooper). However, the new Nicolette character completely wastes the considerable talent of Julia Stiles.
But: Gone is the mission to kill or neutralize the master assassin, Carlos. Gone is Bourne's trainer and mentor, David Abbott. Gone is Washburn, the wise physician who gives Bourne the first clues to his identity. Gone is much of the soul-searching and character development spurred by Bourne's quest to find out who he really is. And gone is David Webb. What is left in place of all this fertile detail is a whiff of a plot about an assassin marked for assassination because he failed to carry out an assassination. Indeed, what's missing is the core of Ludlum's novel and Ludlum's character: Bourne was more about life than about death, more about learning to live than looking to kill. You may say that the struggle of man against himself doesn't play well in a visual medium, but I disagree. The script by Tony Gilroy left out all of the peripheral characters that draw out and demonstrate that struggle.
The 1988 Bourne Identity had its flaws (Jaclyn Smith can't act, for one; Franka Potente can -- wow!), but at least it was supplied with everything that made the novel multifaceted. This movie could have been like that. Bourne grapples with questions everyone encounters at one time or another as much as with villains: Are we who we think we are? Or are we who others think we are? (Or are we who we think others think we are?) The 2002 Bourne Identity is just an action flick with a couple of borrowed characters. Give us some awareness with the action and we'll have a better movie.
Then, perhaps, we'll have a Bourne Supremacy.
Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.