Although car chases are formulaic, they needn't be standard issue. One
of the many substantial pleasures that The Bourne Identity offers
is a thoughtful car chase, a loving car chase, in which the characters
truly care about their conduct amid prolonged automotive mayhem. It
doesn't hurt, of course, that the scene is Paris. The streets there are barely wide enough for a single fleeing vehicle--which means that Jason Bourne may as well use the sidewalk when he needs an extra lane. Once the pedestrians dive out
of the way, he gets to skid through every degree of turn except
ninety--Descartes never laid his grid over this city--until the route
ends at a set of stairs. They're very picturesque; and considering what
his car's undercarriage was already like, they can't do much harm.
By the time the car fully resumes the horizontal, some of the pursuing
motorcycle cops have managed to pull up. "Turn your head," Jason warns
his passenger, Marie Kreutz, in a surprisingly gentle tone. She was
guzzling booze straight from the bottle even before this ride; he'd
rather not worsen her alarm by letting her watch the next maneuver. But
we see it, as one cop after another is shaken off and the car hurtles
onto a highway. At last--a chance to make time! The camera drops to
within an inch of the macadam so that our brains, too, can get a good
rattle, as Jason and Marie's car seems to race straight out of the
screen. Then, almost without transition, it's shooting through more
non-Cartesian turns, off a ramp, past the spot where the last motorcycle
cop makes his rendezvous with a passing truck, to come to a very
temporary version of rest.
How should a car chase end? If the sequence is standard issue, the
filmmaker will require a fireball, or a roll downhill and then a
fireball, followed perhaps by the sight of the good guys speeding away.
But in The Bourne Identity, director Doug Liman has been witty
enough to conclude the sequence by having Jason pull into a parking
garage. From this, we may learn that the hero is a fundamentally
conventional person, despite what he's been doing for the past five
minutes. But this is only part of what we learn--because Liman is also
clever enough to make the real action start when the motor stops.
All but vibrating from what they've been through, Marie and Jason sit in
the car in silence, each glancing awkwardly toward the other and then
looking away. The camera, static at last, takes them both in at once.
Time stretches; they squirm. Someone is going to have to say something
pretty soon--and the words, when they come, will have the shy banality
of a postcoital stab at conversation, when the two people have scarcely
met and are wondering what the hell they've just done.
For me, this was the moment when The Bourne Identity revealed its
true nature, as a study of those people in their 20s who can't yet put
up with workaday life. Liman has looked at such characters before, in
Swingers and Go. Those movies were about using
recreational drugs, selling recreational drugs, selling over-the-counter
medicines that you claim are recreational drugs, losing yourself in
music, losing yourself in lap dancing, losing your sense that this cute
thing before you might not be an ideal companion when you get to be 70.
Jobs in these movies count for little or nothing; friendships mean the
world, though they're always breaking apart. If you can recognize these
attitudes, and if you're familiar with the behavior through which
they're expressed nowadays, you will understand Jason Bourne and Marie
Kreutz. They're typical Doug Liman characters, who just happen to live
in a spy thriller.
Now, since The Bourne Identity is adapted from a Robert Ludlum
novel and was written for the screen by two people other than the
director, you might doubt the wisdom of ascribing all the above to
Liman. But look at the casting. In the title role, Liman has Matt Damon,
who carries over from Good Will Hunting his persona of the
regular working stiff--an unpretentious guy who must nevertheless come
to grips with a great power he's been given. In Good Will
Hunting, the gift was mathematical genius, which somehow was shut up
behind Damon's sloping brow and wary, squinting eyes. In The Bourne
Identity, in which he plays a CIA assassin suffering from amnesia,
Damon is puzzled to hear himself speak many languages, and to find that
his arms and legs demolish anyone who threatens him. Different skills;
same aura of being troubled, but decent and game. When Jason Bourne
refuses to hold on to a gun--something that he does more than once in
the picture--Damon infuses the gesture with the gut-level morality of a
Catholic boy from South Boston.
Paired with Damon, in the role of Marie, is Franka Potente, the young
German actress who is best known for Run Lola Run. She, too, has
retained her persona from the earlier film, so that she brings to Marie
a convincing impression of having enjoyed quite a few good times over
the past years, many of which she can't remember. Her basic facial
expression is something between a scowl and a sneer--the sign, you'd
think, of a feral sexuality that bores her, because it encounters no
worthy challengers and yet prevents her from concentrating on anything
else. No wonder she runs--or drifts in this case, playing someone who
has done nothing since high school except wander about. When first seen
in The Bourne Identity, Potente is at the American Embassy in
Zurich, making a pain of herself by demanding a visa to which she is
most likely not entitled. When first approached by Damon, Potente
establishes her baseline attitude toward people by snapping "What are
you looking at?" Her Marie isn't a bad person, you
understand--she's just been bad news for any man she's hung around. Now,
though, she's met the right guy in Jason Bourne, meaning someone who can
be bad news for her.
I think it's worthwhile to compare these characters with those played by
Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins in Bad Company, a routine
bomb-in-a-suitcase thriller, whose main function is to help audiences
kill time till the release of Men in Black 2. Hopkins plays the
self-controlled CIA agent, who is so white he's English. Rock plays
(guess what?) the street-smart, fast-talking black guy, who must be put
into the field at once, or else the world will end. There's an
underground trade in nuclear weapons, you see, which Hopkins can foil
only with the aid of someone who looks exactly like Rock.
And there's the essential problem of Bad Company. The mere
appearance of Chris Rock is supposedly enough; the assignment requires
no one to act like him. In any decent movie of this sort--48
Hours, say, or Trading Places--the white character will fail
in his task, except for the wiles the black character can lend him. But
in Bad Company, Rock exists solely to be educated. A very smart
man who has made nothing of his abilities--the reasons for which failure
are left disturbingly vague--his character must be trained to wear a
suit, sip Bordeaux and rise at dawn. These traits, according to the
movie, are proper to a white man; and Rock will help defeat terrorism by
adopting them. As an interim goal for the character, this is bad enough.
What's worse is the final justification for rubbing some white onto
Rock: to make him a fit husband.
Bad Company was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Joel
Schumacher and written, so far as I can tell, by the welfare policy
officials of the Bush Administration. Heartless in theme and faceless in
style, it is so many thousands of feet of off-the-shelf filmmaking,
through which you sift, disconsolate, in search of a single live moment.
There is one: the scene in which Rock tells off a CIA supervisor. Of
course, this, too, is part of the formula; but when Rock lets loose his
falsetto indignation, the world's shams all wash away in the torrent.
You feel clean and free, listening to Rock's outrage. I wonder what he'd
say in private about this movie.
Maybe he'd say The Bourne Identity has more soul than all of Joel
Schumacher's films put together. I think soulfulness has to do with
acknowledging the reserves of personality in someone who might at first
seem a mere type--or acknowledging, for that matter, the personality in
a movie that appears generic. It's about individual but strict judgments
of right and wrong; and, always, it's about the exuberance of talent.
This last point is the one that makes The Bourne Identity into
Liman's movie. His direction is a performance in its own right,
combining the logic and flair of a first-rate bop solo. He attends to
the small, naturalistic gestures--the way Jason pauses to brush snow off
his sleeve, or Marie shields her mouth to hide a smile. He pushes the
cinematography to extremes, using low levels of light from very few
sources, to give you a sense of intimacy with the characters' flesh. He
continually thinks up ways to keep the action fresh. Sometimes his
tricks are unobtrusive, as when he makes a shot shallower than you'd
expect, and so more arresting. Sometimes he's expressive, as when Bourne
teeters on a rickety fire escape, and the camera peers down at his peril
while swinging overhead. And sometimes he's flat-out wild. In the midst
of a fight scene, Liman tosses in a point-of-view shot, about half a
second long, to show you what the bad guy sees as he flies over a desk,
upside down. If my schedule of screenings and deadlines had been more
merciful, I would now compare Liman's direction with that of the master,
John Woo, in his new Windtalkers. But I wasn't able to see
Windtalkers by press time; and, on reflection, I'm glad I didn't.
The Bourne Identity deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake.
If you're interested in the plot, you can enjoy that, too. I've left it
till last, since that's what Liman does. In one of his cheekiest
gestures, he lets the movie's McGuffin go unexplained. But as a public
service, I will give you this much detail: The Bourne Identity
assumes that the CIA's activities are an endless chain of cover-ups,
with each new calamity needing to be hidden in turn. That's why the
agency needs unlimited power.
Bad Company? Right.