You know, a man can have too much of fine wines, cordon bleu and sophisticated living. Sometimes he hungers for nothing more than a basic slab of steak, a mug of cool beer and the earthy, no-frills company of salt-of-the-earth labourers and their families. Unfortunately the local Harvester is being renovated so I went to see Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity instead, which looked like being the cinematic equivalent.
This is widely being touted as the film that's saved Matt Damon's career - but let's not hold that against it just yet. It all starts off with French fishermen dragging Matt's body out of the Mediterranean, EU fishing quotas allowing them to pick up any number of young American leading men. Matt is alive, but his identity and past are a mystery to both him and the audience - a mystery second only to how it is that Matt has been shot twice without leaving a single hole in his wetsuit.
Ah well. Matt quickly recovers (these are Hollywood bullet wounds that need only a dab of elastoplast to fix) and sets off across Europe to discover his true identity. Now, as anyone who regularly goes to the cinema will know, movie amnesiacs never turn out to be potters or estate agents or plumbers. They are always spies or assassins - obviously, the more interesting your life, the more chance there is of you forgetting it. And so it proves here, as Matt realises he has many unusual skills (especially for someone who only looks about nineteen). He is a crack shot and a martial arts expert, but as it turns only an indifferent hairdresser. The leading lady (Franka Potente, who is only marginally inconvenienced in her work by the fact she looks slightly more butch than Matt) lives to regret this. It all turns out to be to do with unauthorised CIA black ops and a special project to train deep-cover assassins. Not to mention Matt mooching around like a gap-year student on the backpacking holiday from hell.
This is based on the novel by Robert Ludlum (who also executive produces) but it seemed to me that the movie draws on a much wider range of sources: Luc Besson movies, the first big-screen Mission: Impossible, more traditional spy films from the sixties and seventies, even The Pink Panther. The glaring omission from this pot pourri of influences is, of course, Bond: it doesn't have that franchise's irresistible swagger or indeed its sense of humour. This is a very dry and rather humourless movie, particularly when Potente isn't about to lend some colour. Liman stages some quite impressive action sequences, particularly a terrific car chase paying homage to The Italian Job, and his direction has moments of real style - but too often it's flat and anonymous.
Hollywood seems to be in the process of bringing up a new generation of leading men with perfect cheekbones but no discernible personality and Matt Damon is one of the foremost of their number. He strikes me as a rather limited actor, trading heavily on a kind of surly narcissism, and he's arguably wrong for this part: in order for the audience to actually start rooting for a character with no background or agenda, they need to be innately likeable and charismatic. Damon isn't, really, and his introspective performance is workmanlike at best. The same can be said for Chris Cooper as the villain, too.
However, Potente is much better, giving a refreshingly quirky turn, and Brian Cox is as dependable as ever in a cameo role. The real surprise package is Clive Owen, who despite having a tiny part with only a handful of lines delivers the most memorable performance in the movie. If he'd swapped roles with Damon I suspect this would have been a much better film.
The Bourne Identity isn't really a bad film as it stands. It's engaging enough, it never drags for long, the plot makes sense and the money's all up there on the screen. But it never really comes to life as a thriller in its own right - like its central character; it spends an age trying to find its own personality. Not inappropriately for a film about amnesia, The Bourne Identity is, for all its good points, rather forgettable.