As mentioned before in my review of Quantum of Solace, I've never been much of a classic Bond fan -- both taking the Connery / Moore originals and the newer crop of Brosnan flicks into account. Therefore, when the series was floundering in the late '90s and early 2000s, there's wasn't a direct need for a "replacement" coming from this direction. However, it seems as if this necessity was at least a partial driving force behind delving into Robert Ludlum's novels (a second time) for a new franchise, revolving around the amnesiac cloak-and-dagger assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Interestingly, the storytelling for this series, Doug Liman's installment The Bourne Identity in particular, anchors to at least a moderate realism that'll appeal even to those who aren't aficionados of the spy thriller style of pictures.
The story starts quickly: a man's silhouette sloshes around lifeless in the middle of the Mediterranean, with little more than a blinking indicator light on his person to attract attention. He's picked up by a fishing boat and patched up, which includes doctoring a few gunshot wounds and removing an odd cylindrical device from his hip that contains an account number of sorts in Zurich. On the boat, he instinctively ties knots he didn't realize he knew how to tie, begins randomly speaking languages, and learns about his capabilities to size opponents up, along with his ability to beat the snot out of them. Gradually the man, whom we'd eventually learn is named Jason Bourne, finds his way to the bank and learns of his identity -- communicated through a barrage of passports, stacks of foreign currency, and a pistol. He's not sure what it all means, but he knows two things: 1) it's not good, and 2) he's got to learn more.
Director Liman, leaning towards the fluid temperance he created with Go, bolsters the core of Robert Ludlum's original story into something that's not trying to mimic a product or create the next dime-a-dozen, perfecto spy archetype. Bourne's geared to do nothing but figure out who the hell he is, and that's a resolve that we're more ready to get behind than yet another MI6 assignment. Instead of bombarding us with plot convolution, it concentrates on the simplicity of Bourne's desperate curiosity as its driving, nerve-rattling force. Matt Damon's the right guy for the job, too; he's rigid, blunt with his dialogue, and really not suave in the slightest, and everything about the way he conducts Bourne is pitch-perfect. Here, we've got a lethal spy in a grimy burnt orange sweatshirt, instead of a tux, who doesn't really even know he's a spy, a badass who's not exactly knowledgeable of his abilities and a guy who may or may not be a suave ladies man -- and, for that reason, Jason Bourne's an identifiable everyman of sorts.
He does eventually link up with a woman, and it ain't Pussy Gallore or Honey Rider. Bourne stumbles upon a German gypsy, Marie (Franka Potente), who helps to guide him along his path to the truth, as well as his actual path from Switzerland to France. She's, in her own right, a bit of the off-the-radar type just like her amnesiac counterpart, which makes them kindred spirits in a backwards way. Franka Potente's a good match for Matt Damon here, stand-offish yet sincere enough as Marie to give them chemistry. The character's best quality, however, is in her ability to be a source for Bourne to bounce off garbled memories and random understandings. One of their best scenes together is in a snowy coffeeshop where she's trying to grasp his situation, along with Bourne's inexplicable knowledge of his strategic, spy-geared brain that tells him how far he can run in the freezing cold and where weapons could be found in close proximity.
We, on the other hand, learn early on that Jason Bourne is this cold-blooded killing machine, a pawn underneath the CIA's fingertips -- more appropriately, under the thumb of Conklin (Chris Cooper), in turn also under the thumb of Ward Abbot (Brian Cox) -- who's blacklisted and marked for elimination due to a botched mission. Knowing what we do about Bourne, and the men hunting him down, Doug Liman guides our focus away from the gadgets and overblown mayhem present in the more "popular" entries in the genre. His focus resides in storytelling, staying gritty, grounded and matter-of-fact as Bourne interlocks pieces of his past through the mostly cold, icy terrains through Switzerland and Paris -- and through terse banter between the CIA heads that occur outside of his earshot. Watching Bourne dangle from snow-covered ledges, or take out three-or-four cops and end up with their firearms, is exciting for the practically behind the sequences.
The Bourne Identity generates enthralling, grind-to-the-bone suspense because of the fact that we're privy to things that the lead character isn't, becoming compelling for its story but ultimately satisfying because of its breakneck yet mindfully controlled pace. A vein of confusion-fueled suspense -- accompanied by an absolutely kinetic score that enhances the motion -- leads us through the cluster of locations, with the hustle 'n bustle at CIA headquarters as the counter force rushing to collide with Jason Bourne at his destination, whatever that might be. Along the way, we're given two highly entertaining scenes that are worth the price of admission alone: one involving a car chase scene through Paris that rivals the likes of Bullitt and the original Italian Job for intensity, and a sweat-breaking sprint through a long-grass field as Bourne evades assassination by another of his Treadstone operatives -- played by Clive Owen in one of his pre-stardom roles. A few other recognizable faces also sneak into the production, including Julia Stiles in a mostly agreeable performance as a shaky CIA/Treadstone desk jockey and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje from "Lost" as political figure, and target, Wombosi.
What I appreciate most about The Bourne Identity is its simplicity, largely due to the precision of Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron's steamline adapted script. As mentioned earlier, Liman opts away from trying to contort the narrative to a drastic degree by focusing on Bourne's search for the truth, yet he retains a level of smarts about the whole affair in a way that controls our perception of the narrative. That's a very refreshing change from the likes of other espionage flicks that try to dazzle with a maze of narrative whodunit spasms that we've got to sift through, all the way to the conclusion. Not Liman's Bourne film; he keeps affairs streamlined and punchy, relationships authentic, and the explosive action sequences (aside from one kneejerk moment at the end of the film) comfortably ingrained in a sense of realism. Now that's my kind of spy thriller.
Universal have officially decided to travel back down the oft-maligned route of offering a dual-sided HD/SD "combo disc", starting with the first three Bourne films as single-releases. One side contains the Blu-ray presentation already available in the Ultimate Bourne Collection (available both here and in the UK), while the other contains the most recent DVD release for each film. As HD-DVD adopters will remember, Universal had the lion's share of issues with several pressings in the now-debunked format. Thankfully, it seems as if these dual-sided combo pressings of the Bourne films are functional out of the gate, as both loaded up fine in JVC's XV-BP1 and Sony's Playstation 3 -- each playing from start to finish on JVC's player without a hitch.
Video and Audio:
The Bourne Identity comes from Universal in a 2.35:1 VC-1 encode that'll look familiar to owners of the HD-DVD. Oliver Wood's slate-leaning cinematography has moments of pleasing sharpness, though most of the image isn't as tightly-detailed as you'd expect from a film this young. Action sequences, explosions, and the excellent car chase retain solid, distortion-free motion, while the low-saturation palette express pleasing low-color oranges and blues. Grain does grow a bit heavy and a few sequences -- most notably the early conversation between Chris Cooper and Brian Cox -- show off odd contrast issues that carry over from previous prints of the film. Still, it's a pleasant rendering of the film with a few instances of HD excellence, and certainly the best the film's looked since its theatrical release.
The DTS HD Master Audio track, however, excels as a high-definition audio presentation on several levels. The most prominent element from the track comes in the pulsating score, which pounds from all directions with a crispness that steps beyind the Dolby Digital Plus track on the HD-DVD. Collisions of metal with cars and explosions pass down to the lower-frequency channel with significant power, while vocal clarity stays paramount and distortion-free -- even during a few typical Damon-style yelling sequences. Each revving of an engine flows through the midrange sound levels, while gunshots pierce across the soundstage to exceptional degrees. We're working with a fair amount of power, but it's also a delicately-constructed sound design as well, and the graceful elements sound great. French and Spanish DTS tracks are also available, along with subtitles in each of those languages as well.
All of the special features from the HD-DVD are available on the Blu-ray, along with BD-Live access and U-Control -- including the Treadstone Files and Bourne Orientation portions, with the Picture-in-Picture elements, that largely regurgitate textual data and fresh interviews that cover similar material to the forthcoming supplements. We've got three featurettes: The Ludlum Identity (12:49), the Ludlum Supremacy (12:41), and The Ludlum Ultimatum (23:57), that dive into Robert Ludlum's legacy and the nature of Jason Bourne as a character. Archived interview time with Ludlum takes the helm in the first portion, while discussion about the films and snippets from interviews with Eric Van Lustbader, follow-up author for the Bourne series. Ultimatum covers a bit of Identity, as well as the construction of the Greengrass films. Also, the same Feature Commentary with Doug Liman is available, which is persistently enlightening yet a tad mechanical in regards to filmic elements -- and sporting quite a few gaps in material. But what he offers is excellent.
Ported from the "Explosive Extended" DVD are all of the extras, which are plentiful. Along with several Deleted / Alternate Scenes, an Extended Farmhouse Sequence, and the Alternate Opening / Ending for alternate content, we've also got The Bourne Mastermind: Robert Ludlum (6:37), which somewhat seems obsolete in comparison to the three initial featurettes, a generic assembly feature with The Birth of The Bourne Identity (14:32), and Access Granted: an Interview with Co-Writer Tony Gilroy (4:03). Character structure and scripting becomes the focus with the next few pieces, including From Identity to Supremacy: Jason and Marie (3:37), The Bourne Diagnosis (3:26), and Cloak and Dagger: Covert Ops (5:31) which covers the CIA's daily operations. Wrapping things up are the Inside a Fight Sequence (4:23) portion covering the embassy throwdown, and the Moby Music Video (3:39).
The Bourne Identity is an intelligent, controlled spy thriller that grapples a strategically constricted level of tension for its driving force. It's not a flashy picture or a labyrinthine, talked-to-death rollercoaster, but more of a core, rhythmic suspense that captures Matt Damon perfectly as the rogue assassin Jason Bourne. For a picture that doesn't push the throttle down purposefully, it certainly carries its share of breathtaking sequences -- including a tremendously visceral, yet wholly streamlined, car chase near the center. For those that don't dig the girls, gadgets, and glitz of some high-profile debonair spy flicks, this rough-and-tumble character study's the way to go. On a personal level, The Bourne Identity stands out as my preferred film from the Trilogy, so the prospect of just owning this film on Blu-ray is appealing. Even though it's a shame Universal's gone the route of the dual-sided disc for this slew of catalog releases, it's still a Highly Recommended high-definition package of a great dramatic action film -- complete with highly satisfying video, a punchy Master Audio track, and a ton of supplemental features.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site