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Handle With Apathy 

Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity is so old and tired it could be lapped by a snail. And that's only some of its problems. The picture is based on Robert Ludlum's 1980 spy novel, and though it's been updated to allow for more contemporary electronic gadgetry, it still feels like it arrived here as a historical curiosity. In a post-9/11 world, this picture has all the urgency of an argument over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The Bourne Identity is the story of a spy who comes out of his gourd. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), aka the Manhattan phone book, presumes he's a spook because he's wearing bullet holes, knows karate and has the digits of a numbered Swiss bank account inserted on a filament under his skin. (Of course, who doesn't?) Unfortunately, he doesn't know his own name and isn't sure it really is his own name when he learns what his name is. He doesn't know why he was floating about in the Mediterranean before being rescued by a passing fishing boat, what he might have been up to prior to posing as shark bait, or why someone has used him for target practice. We don't know any of this either, but when we find out, we don't care.

I presume it's the bullet holes that make Bourne so cautious. You'd think he might go to a hospital and ask if there's anything he could take for amnesia. But instead, when he gets off the fishing boat, he goes to a freezing park bench and waits for two cops to come along to harass him. We think he just beats the cops up, but actually he kills them. Then he takes really decisive action and throws away his down jacket. This seems needless because a) did I mention it's freezing?, and b) the cops are too dead to report what he was wearing when he killed them.

In flight from the dead cops, Bourne goes to check on that numbered Swiss bank account where he learns many of his names, acquires a great deal of money and decides not to avail himself of the pistols he has stored in his safety deposit box. For any another spy on the lam, this would prove a miscalculation. But Bourne's fists are registered with InterPol as deadly weapons. And so shortly he needs them! One of the bank guys calls the CIA in Washington, D.C. The CIA calls the local Swiss gendarmes and the butt-kicking is on. Don't local gendarmes ever learn?! We don't know why the CIA guys in Washington are trying to employ those patently pathetic local Swiss gendarmes to do Bourne harm, but when we find out, we don't care.

After he hides under the roof and escapes by climbing down the outside walls like Spider-Man without either the uniform or the scantiest chance of becoming this summer's box-office champ, Bourne takes a chance on romance. Don't spies always do that? In an alleyway just outside where no one thinks to look for him, Bourne encounters a comely redhead named Marie (Run Lola Run's Franka Potente) and offers her $20,000 to drive him to Paris. Marie is just a poor student with a visa problem, so it never occurs to her that Bourne might be in trouble or place her life in jeopardy. This plot development offers two possible explanations: either a) European taxis are more expensive than we realized or b) Marie is a blithering idiot.

Bourne has smartly determined that one of his identities lives in a Paris apartment. Having already dispatched two cops and a battalion of local Swiss gendarmes, Bourne knows that someone is after him. It does not occur to him, however, that they might look for him at his own frigging apartment. And so we arrive at the film's best (but unfortunately far from last) scene. Bourne is walking around his spacious Paris apartment, reflecting on how one of his identities sat on this couch, slept on that bed and ate at that table, when he's attacked by a one-man SWAT team who rappels down from the roof, crashes through gorgeous French doors that open out onto a lovely balcony where one of Bourne's identities perhaps sometimes took tea, and engages our hero in some manly if predictably futile fisticuffs. Shouldering the burden of his inevitable defeat, our SWAT intruder promptly kills himself rather than risk capture. We don't know why the assassin bothered to kill Bourne's sweet landlady on the building's first floor before climbing on the roof to crash into Bourne's apartment for manly fisticuffs, but by this point we care only that we are now openly scoffing and the picture still has another hour to run.

After Paris, The Bourne Identity is never again quite so ridiculous, but it is persistently even less interesting.

click to enlarge Do you take cash? Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) tries to get a ride to Paris from a perplexed Marie Kreutz in The Bourne Identity.
  • Do you take cash? Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) tries to get a ride to Paris from a perplexed Marie Kreutz in The Bourne Identity.
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