Just as Changing Lanes broke Ben Affleck's long, post-Good Will Hunting bad-movie losing streak, The Bourne Identity does the same for his old friend Matt Damon.
Despite some action/spy movie contrivances, it's an expertly told and very entertaining spy thriller that establishes Damon's action-acting chops.
Damon gave excellent, memorable performances in GWH and 1998's The Talented Mr. Ripley, but his more recent work has been plagued by bad role choices and bad movies since (most eggregiously, All the Pretty Horses, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Jay and Silent Bob Stirke Back.) Bourne Identity marks the end of his career funk, and it's a welcome break.
Damon stars as Jason Bourne, a CIA man who is introduced floating in the Atlantic with two bullets in his back. When he's rescued by a passing fishing boat, he still has his physical strength, knowledge of many languages, and impeccable fighting skills, but can't remember who he is or where he came from. Upon arriving in Zurich for a bank visit, he goes on the run with a local woman (Run Lola Run's Franka Potente, fitting just right in a very European role) and spends the rest of the film on the run from killers hired by his former agency, while attempting to remember who, exactly, he is.
The Bourne Identity was directed by Doug Liman, who made one of the best American movies of the Nineties (Swingers) and followed that up with 1999's middling Pulp Fiction rehash Go. He does an exemplary job with the directorial chores in Bourne Identity, although it would be a stretch to suggest Liman is an "auteur" (after all, Swingers' genius came more from Jon Favreau's script than Liman's direction).
However, the chase scenes and action sequences are very impressively shot throughout (especially one great car chase through Paris), and there's some beautiful photography from all around Europe. While it's not flashy, there's certainly nothing wrong with Liman's direction or the script, adapted from the Robert Ludlum novel by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron.
Some of the spy stuff is almost intentionally cliched and goofy. Like Enemy of the State, The Bourne Identity imagines a world in which the CIA is all-knowing and all-powerful, capable of universal surveillance worldwide, control over dozens of henchmen, and with its fingers in all sorts of assassination plots.
The plot involves an assassination attempt on an exiled African dictator (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, from Oz, looking a lot like the wrestler Booker T), who a rogue element of the CIA itself put into power. There's even Julia Stiles (who is 20 years old but looks even younger) in a small and quite unconvincing role as an expert CIA operative.
Despite these contrivances, The Bourne Identity is an exciting, well-made, and crowd-pleasing film that serves as a welcome return to form for both Matt Damon and Doug Liman.