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.