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.