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.