Amnesia cases always intrigue people due to us wondering who the person really is, what caused them to forget who they are, and what it would be like to suddenly find oneself in such a situation. Those characteristics obviously apply quite well to movies featuring characters afflicted by that condition and their goal to discover the above.
All of that holds up rather well in the latest such picture, "The Bourne Identity." Based on author Robert Ludlum's 1980 novel of the same name - which was previously adapted as a 1988 TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain - the film will probably remind some viewers of parts of previous related efforts such as "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Total Recall." That's because all feature characters who not only slowly learn who they really are, but also discover that their real identity and existence causes various people to want them dead.
Smartly keeping the viewer in the dark - at least for a while - pretty much along with the protagonist, director Doug Liman ("Go," "Swingers") - who works from the screenplay adaptation by Tony Gilroy ("Proof of Life," "Bait") and William Blake Herron ("A Texas Funeral," "Skin Art") - keeps one guessing about the truth and intersperses some decently staged and executed action and fight sequences with that.
He also manages to create an aura and visual style that will also remind some viewers of spy thrillers from the '60s and '70s as combined with a European film feel. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the picture was filmed entirely filmed on location in Paris & Prague that obviously gives the proceedings a somewhat unique feel in today's world of back lots and Canadian cities standing in for the real thing (although Prague is playing Zurich here).
All of which is good since the plot - which has been altered quite a bit from Ludlum's original work - isn't really anything particularly spectacular or novel. Simply put, the character tries to figure out who he is and why he was shot in the back, all while avoiding those who've been sent to kill him.
In that sense, it's something of a variation of the old cat and mouse plot that's fueled somewhat similar films such as "The Fugitive." Like that one, this effort features an engaging protagonist, this time embodied by Matt Damon ("Ocean's Eleven," "All the Pretty Horses").
Thanks to his mostly credible performance - both dramatically and action-wise - we want the character to succeed as we join him on his compelling journey of discovering the truth. Although Damon might not have been everyone's first choice for the role, his performance reminded me of John Cusack's terrific one in "Grosse Pointe Blank" playing the troubled but physically proficient hitman.
Where the film falters a bit and thus pales in comparison to the likes of "The Fugitive" is with the role of the adversary. While the scenes featuring Damon's character dealing with the various hitmen - including the one embodied by Clive Owen ("Gosford Park," "Greenfingers") - work from an action standpoint, the embodiment of the main antagonist simply doesn't work as well.
Part of that's because of the rather poorly written role, but also due to the way Chris Cooper ("The Patriot," "American Beauty") overacts a bit too much, as well as his character not being as actively involved in the hunt as was the case with Tommy Lee Jones' character in "The Fugitive." That weak element doesn't cripple the film, but it does prevent it from being as exciting and engaging as it might have been (since the hero is only as good as the villain he faces).
Franka Potente ("Blow," "Run Lola Run") is rather good as the drifter who becomes tangled up in the identity crisis. Quite simply, it's a breath of fresh air that she doesn't play the typical female sidekick so often found in Hollywood action or suspense films.
Other performances from the likes of Brian Cox ("The Rookie," "Super Troopers") and Julia Stiles ("Save the Last Dance," "State and Main") are okay, but basically end up being superfluous, as they don't really add much to the story or viewer experience. There also doesn't seem to be any real explanation behind Stiles' appearance other than from the financial side of adding a relatively well-known and thus bankable face to the proceedings.
Although the film loses a bit of steam in the third act after we and the protagonist basically know all of the facts regarding his identity and past, and it contains bouts of quick but unnecessary and somewhat distracting transitional edits from time to time, it's still far better than many of the spy thrillers that Hollywood often tries to create.
Relatively straightforward and simple plot-wise despite the amnesia angle, the film obviously knows what it wants to be and do. For the most part, it thankfully succeeds rather well and comes off as an engaging and entertaining entry in the genre. "The Bourne Identity" might not be great, but it turns out to be rather fun to watch and thus rates as a 6.5 out of 10.