The Bourne Identity Review
A man (Matt Damon) is hauled out of the Mediterranean Sea with gunshot wounds in his back and no memory of who he is. Taken to the shore by the fishermen who found him, he ultimately ends up in Zurich, where he discovers himself to be in possession of a safe deposit box containing a considerable sum of money, a handgun and several passports in a variety of names – one of which, Jason Bourne, he assumes. He quickly discovers himself to be fluent in several languages and proficient in hand to hand combat, and that several people appear to want him dead. Furthermore, evidence strongly points towards him having been up to his neck in CIA-led conspiracy. On a whim, a young German woman, Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), tags along with him as he sets out to decipher who he really is and what he was doing before he ended up in the Mediterranean pumped full of lead.
The Bourne Identity, the first instalment in the series of blockbuster movies based on Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels, came along at exactly the right time as far as spy movies were concerned. The venerable Bond franchise was about to hit rock bottom with the idiotic Die Another Day, and the appeal of Jason Bourne as a stripped-down, back-to-basics James Bond, deprived of his ludicrous gadgets and snappy one-liners, is obvious. While the waters have been somewhat muddied by the fact that the Bond franchise recently enjoyed a stripped-down, back-to-basics reboot with Casino Royale, back in 2002 this realistic take on the spy genre was unquestionably a breath of fresh air. Popular opinion would appear to dictate that the first entry, The Bourne Identity, is the weakest of the three films released so far. It seems to be taken on trust that Paul Greengrass, who helmed the second and third instalments, is the true auteur of the series and the reason for its success. There may be some truth in the notion that Greengrass succeeded in putting his own distinctive stamp on the franchise, but personally I’ve always considered Doug Liman’s work on the first film to be more engaging and... well, more watchable.
Part of that is down to Liman himself, but another significant reason for its success is the way in which the story is structured – specifically, providing the audience with a window into the film’s high octane world via the character of Marie. Let’s be blunt for a moment: Matt Damon is not a particularly charismatic actor. He handles the action scenes well and you can genuinely believe him to be capable of taking on hordes of foes single-handed, but there’s something fundamentally inexpressive about both his appearance and acting style. The way in which the series progresses demands that he becomes more human as his story unravels and he discovers more about his past, but it never really happens because Damon plays the character exactly the same way at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum as he does at the beginning of The Bourne Identity.
The beauty of The Bourne Identity, therefore, is that while it is ostensibly the story of Jason Bourne, the bulk of the dramatic weight comes from how Maria reacts to and is affected by the increasingly outrageous situations in which she finds herself after her chance encounter with Bourne. She’s a very human character, nicely portrayed by Franka Potente, a very unaffected actress whose presence in this summer blockbuster has always struck me as slightly odd but very welcome. Whereas Damon has the same glowering frown-scowl on his face no matter what obstacles are hurled in his way, Marie reacts as you would expect a normal woman to, and, refreshingly for the female sidekick in a Hollywood action movie, is neither overly helpless nor implausibly heroic. I attribute her absence from the third film, and the bulk of the second, as one of the main reasons for their comparative austerity and the curious distancing effect they have on me.
The other, as mentioned earlier, is the direction. Paul Greengrass, who helmed episodes two and three, cut his teeth on Granada Television’s World in Action documentary series, developing a specific interest in the Northern Ireland conflict. Throughout his career as a feature filmmaker, his work has retained the choppy editing and guerrilla-style camerawork that characterised his reports from real-life war zones, and has won considerable acclaim for the supposed realism that this approach has brought to the Bourne movies and the likes of United 93, his film about the 9/11 aeroplane hijackings. Unfortunately, far from adding to the realism, such techniques have always struck me as profoundly heavy-handed in movies, drawing attention to the fundamentally constructed nature of the film rather than immersing me in it. Indeed, what’s striking about Doug Liman’s work on The Bourne Identity in retrospect is how sedate it often is. Lengthy stretches go by where the camera is content to remain largely static, focusing on a conversation between characters or following Bourne as he marches through the snowy streets of Zurich at night, pondering his own existence. Even a high speed car chase through the streets of Paris is shot and cut with a great deal of restraint, and is all the more effective for it. The straightforwardness and lack of camera showmanship in action scenes such as this hammers home the realism of the stunts being performed – something that is far harder to appreciate when the camera is jittering around and the editor chopping from one shot to another every second.
At its heart, this is a solid thriller well told and populated by a varied cast. While the real star as far as I’m concerned is Franka Potente, actors ranging from Brian Cox to Julia Stiles give the film colour, while Bourne’s globe-trotting antics allow us to take in a diverse array of locations, beginning in the middle of the Mediterranean and concluding in Greece. Indeed, for all that this is a Hollywood effort, the film is strikingly European in ways that reach far beyond its setting. Ironically enough, by stripping the spy film down to its bare essentials, The Bourne Identity brings back much of the allure and glamour of the Bond series in its heyday. Casino Royale is, as far as I’m concerned, the best film of this type produced for the 21st century so far, but there can be little doubt that the Daniel Craig/Bond reboot wouldn’t have happened had Jason Bourne not paved the way.
Blu-ray Disc Presention
The Bourne Identity is presented here in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. This 1080P VC-1 encode is brand new, sporting a higher bit rate than its HD DVD predecessor and, as it turns out, looking ever so slightly better. Although stylistically more to my tastes than the two subsequent films, the first film is undeniably the weakest looking on Blu-ray in a technical sense. Derived from a film source whereas the other two each received a digital intermediate, detail suffers slightly, and there is a degree of ringing around high frequency edges. Presumably as a result of the increased bit rate, the grain is reproduced more faithfully than on the HD DVD transfer, which results in the image looking a little tighter and more film-like, and in places results in a minute boost to the overall detail levels, particularly where fine textures are concerned. Essentially, it looks less “smoothed over” on the whole, and while the improvement is fairly small and possibly something the casual viewer won’t notice, it’s definitely there. On the downside, this UK release features generic player-generated location type and subtitles for the non-English dialogue, unlike the burned-in text and correct typefaces used for the US version. A similar problem affects The Bourne Ultimatum.
For this BD version, the audio sees a jump to a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, in comparison with the lossy Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track on the HD DVD. As with most of Universal’s HD DVD titles, the Dolby track had a bit rate of 1.5 Mbps, and sounded pretty decent already, and the boost to lossless audio doesn’t result in any startling upgrades. The most significant improvement comes in the form of the LFE, which is slightly meatier in its BD incarnation. I listened extensively to the car chase through Paris on both versions (Chapter 12), and the BD edition definitely has more oomph across the board. As with the other two instalments, the mix is very fine indeed, with plenty of the sort of wraparound multichannel effects you’d expect from such an action-packed movie. Dialogue sounds fine too, albeit with a slight tendency to become a little overwhelmed by the music and sound effects during action sequences – perhaps an intentional decision on the part of the audio designers.
Subtitles are provided in more languages than I care to count, English naturally being one of them. These cover the film itself as well as most of the extras (barring the commentary).
The Bourne Identity arrives on BD with all the extras from its HD DVD counterpart ported over. Unfortunately, while fairly stacked in terms of the number of bonus features on offer, the vast majority of them are pretty lightweight in nature, each adding up to an average of five minutes’ screen time. The best on offer is an audio commentary by Doug Liman, in which the lucid director talks extensively about just about every aspect of the production. While a little on the dry side, a wealth of information is imparted here, almost making up for the lightweight nature of the various featurettes that fill disc space elsewhere.
Also included are three featurettes entitled The Ludlum Identity, The Ludlum Supremacy and The Ludlum Ultimatum. Lengthier and more in-depth than the EPK pieces found elsewhere on the disc, together these provide an overview of Robert Ludlum’s career and the origins of the Bourne series, as well as how the series transitioned from page to screen, along with the alterations made along the way.
As with the HD DVD, an interactive U-Control feature is provided, allowing those with Profile 1.1 players access to picture-in-picture video and pop-up trivia, as well as a handful of rather silly interactive features that require a web connection. Did you ever want to create a webcam-based video commentary for a film and upload it for your friends to watch? No, me neither.
Other miscellaneous features include an alternate opening and ending, the obligatory deleted scenes and a music video for the Moby musical number that graces the film’s closing credits (my poor ears).
All of the extras are presented in standard definition.
If you already own the HD DVD version of The Bourne Identity, then whether or not you choose to upgrade to this BD release will depend on how attuned you are to subtle improvements in picture and sound quality. For those who have yet to pick up a copy of the film in high definition, however, this release constitutes a solid purchase.
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