In a move to distinguish his own career from that of ex (writing partner? Friend?) Ben Affleck, Matt Damon’s CIA thriller “The Bourne Identity” was released this weekend, two weeks after Affleck’s “The Sum of All Fears.” Both films are based on novels by much-beloved lunatic-fringe suspense authors (Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, respectively) and both movies contain attractive lady-sidekicks. Also, both pretty-boys follow older hard-asses that originated the roles for screen (Affleck follows Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, Richard Chamberlain starred in the 1988 TV version of “Bourne”). Other than that, though, the films are completely different. Kudos, Matt and Ben.

Paul Wong
Cox will eat your liver with fava, as well.
Courtesy of Universal
Paul Wong
Yeah, she wants me.
Courtesy of Universal

Except, of course, that they are both pseudo-serviceable thrillers that are, on the whole, not that interesting. Damon is (still) the better actor of the two (if the less marketable), and he goes from befuddled to agitated in two hours. We find our hero floating somewhere in the Mediterranean with two bullets in his back and a bad case of amnesia. His mental and physical abilities are superior, and he can’t remember how he acquired his razor-sharp skills …

The audience, of course, knows that he works black-ops for the CIA, and he was shot after a failed assassination attempt. He’s a super-trained killer who doesn’t exist and blah, blah, blah. All of this is revealed to the audience within moments, and all of the dark intrigue one expects from a spy flick is destroyed by excess exposition.

Jason Bourne (the most used name in Damon’s multi-monikered existence), rescued from certain death by a fishing boat, finds a Swiss bank account number in a flashlight sewed into his skin (I’m not kidding). He heads to the bank, alerts the CIA to his still-alive whereabouts, finds loads of pass-ports and money in a deposit box, and offers a beautiful woman (Famke Potente, “Run Lola Run”) thousands of dollars to drive him to France. The CIA follow. Bourne kills some bad-ass operatives. Sex is had This is not original stuff, but the talented Damon and Potente make it bearable, until the brain-insulting ending.

This film also wastes three of the more talented character actors working today. Brian Cox (“Rushmore”), as a CIA higher-up, looks nervous. Clive Owen (“Croupier,” “Gosford Park,”) is nearly wordless as another super-CIA agent and Julia Styles (“O”) spends about three minutes making phone calls at the assassin switchboard.

One expects more from director Doug Liman, who helmed both “Swingers” and “Pulp Fiction” knockoff “Go.” Liman forgoes much (though glimmers of hope shine through) of his creativity to show he can be a “major action director.” This may be good for his career, but it’s a shame for filmgoers who enjoy something different.

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