Now that the interchangeable graduates of the Jerry Bruckheimer School Of Filmmaking are monopolizing the summer-movie season, it's rare to see a big-budget action vehicle that isn't choked by smug dialogue, machine-gun editing, and a Diane Warren-penned love theme in the closing credits. A beneficiary of lowered standards, Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity may be a bloodless piece of thriller craftsmanship, but at a time when craft has become negligible, its efficiency and whipcrack timing are increasingly uncommon virtues. Still missing the warmth and color of his calling-card debut Swingers, Liman follows up his slick, superficially exciting Go with more of the same hollow chops. But more than any other genre, the action movie forgives pure technique if it quickens the pulse, and The Bourne Identity at least passes this minimal requirement. Based on Robert Ludlum's novel, the film resembles the paranoid political thrillers of the '70s, but the politics have been surgically removed, leaving just the skeletal premise of a lone man who knows too much and a faceless government agency intent on killing him. Washed up on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean, with gunshot wounds and severe amnesia, Matt Damon journeys across Europe to figure out who he is, but becomes the target of nefarious secret agents and assassins. The first clues to his identity are a numbered Swiss account with guns, cash, and passports, and his sharp instincts for casing a scene and dispatching his foes with nearly superhuman speed and brutality. Needing an inconspicuous route from Zurich to his apartment in Paris, he drops $20,000 for a ride with Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), and the two run through a gauntlet created by powerful CIA operative Chris Cooper, who wants to cover up Damon's involvement in an assassination plot gone wrong. In the past, Damon's clean-cut, deceptively generic good looks have been a secret asset, especially in The Talented Mr. Ripley, where his character's blank adaptability masks his desperate insecurities and a deep knack for self-negation. The Bourne Identity could offer a compelling variation on the same character type, since the protagonists of both films are uncertain who they really are, but Liman discards any shred of character detail in favor of martial arts, sharp-shooting, and cross-traffic car chases. With an overqualified cast that includes Brian Cox, Clive Owen, and Julia Stiles in small roles, the film skillfully retreads better work such as The Day Of The Jackal and a host of John Frankenheimer thrillers, punching up the action with a techno-inflected score and jackhammer sound effects. But in the search for any more distinguishing features, The Bourne Identity mirrors its protagonist all too well.
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