Fished from the Mediterranean onto a trawler out of port from Marseilles, a nearly dead man becomes the unexpected catch of the night. Scalpel in hand, the crew’s doctor makes incisions through two ragged holes in the man’s black neoprene wet suit. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, Ocean’s Eleven) has somehow caught two bullets in his back. The doctor removes them — and a small cylindrical device embedded under the skin of his hip, a laser that projects the number of a Swiss bank account. After waking with a defensive start, Bourne soon realizes he’s lost his identity due to some kind of traumatic amnesia. But many others on both sides of a deadly international intrigue know exactly who he is — even if they don’t know where he is. And both sides need him dead.
Spy thrillers, of course, have darkened the silver screen at least since director Alfred Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Most of us know the plot: A secret agent gets the mission, meets the girl, meets the villain, loses the girl, kills the villain and finally gets the girl. That’s the basic outline of the genre. How it’s filled in is what counts.
Robert Ludlum’s novel, The Bourne Identity, separated itself from other fictions with a license to kill by flipping the script of secret identity. It seems all the major players in this game of espionage know who Bourne is, except Bourne himself. Ludlum washes his hero up on shore like Jonah from the belly of the whale. But ironically, he finds himself in the metaphorical belly of an even more threatening international beast.
In lesser hands, The Bourne Identity could have been reduced to another summer potboiler. But director Doug Liman (Go) and screenwriters Tony Gilroy (Proof of Life) and W. Blake Herron distill rather than merely boil down Ludlum’s story, and Damon and company keep things steadfastly real, even as thrilling chases and battles test the suspension of disbelief. Through this marriage of material and talent, one of the best of the new generation of super-spies is Bourne.