THE BOURNE IDENTITY
I have a lower threshold for international spy thrillers than most people, yet I must admit that I found The Bourne Identity, based on Robert Ludlam's 1980 bestseller, pretty damned enjoyable.
Our hero in this cinematic world of espionage and deceit is one Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), who speaks fluent German and French, handles a firearm like a trained marksman, renders enemies incapacitated with a few quick karate moves, and has absolutely no idea who he is. All he knows is that somebody wants him dead, so Bourne travels throughout Europe searching for his identity, all the while evading the hired assassins - CIA operatives, actually - on his tail and protecting Marie (Franka Potente), the young woman who becomes his inadvertent ally. The film's reams of plot feel like old news - a lot of Cold War-era malarkey about the CIA using individuals as human weapons, the hiring of black ops to secretly eliminate foreign dignitaries, that sort of thing - and the romance that develops between Bourne and Marie is equally phony, a James Bond diversion that seems inconsistent with the film's (somewhat) realistic tone. Yet there's no denying that The Bourne Identity is put together beautifully. Director Doug Liman has an unerring sense of pacing and, in the rare moments when the script allows it, really knows how to set up a joke; there's a terrific scene in which Bourne gives Marie explicit, incredibly convoluted instructions on how to secretly sequester information from a hotel clerk while he waits outside, and instead, Marie gets the info the way any normal person would: She asks the clerk for it. Scene for scene, The Bourne Identity is directed with panache; though it lacks the triumphant, low-down funk of Liman's Swingers and Go, it's a fine piece of Hollywood craftsmanship.
When I first saw the film's preview months ago, a fair amount of giggling ensued when people realized Matt Damon was appearing in an Action Stud flick, but those who worried that he might be too cerebral and weightless to pull off a role like this - and I'll admit, I was one of them - should be pleasantly surprised. Damon's obvious intelligence gives Jason Bourne some gravity - you can see him thinking out his every move - and his toned physicality is impressive without attention being called to it; Damon isn't physically imposing, so when he breaks into a scene of choreographed ass-kicking, it's a true gas, both startling and amusing. Although the film's romantic subplot is a bust, Franka Potente (she who kept racing in Run, Lola, Run) is marvelously vivid throughout, and the sensational Chris Cooper lends his world-weary demeanor to the role of a dirty CIA official, barking orders to a team varied enough to include Julia Stiles, who literally phones in her thankless role as an operative in Paris. The events in The Bourne Identity might be no more believable than those in Spider-Man, but they're almost as much fun; it's popcorn entertainment that transcends the juvenile.
In the drama Windtalkers, director John Woo, cinema's leading purveyor of balletic action crap, has made something quite radical, for him at least: an unapologetically earnest movie. It's not necessarily a good movie, but for those of us who tired of Woo's trumped-up, overrated shenanigans the moment he stopped making films in his native Hong Kong, it's passable enough. During World War II, numerous Native Americans were enlisted by the Marines to transfer wartime information through a code based on the Navajo language; this code was impossible for the Japanese to break, and it aided immeasurably in our World War II victory. It also meant that if any Native American was captured as a POW and subsequently tortured, any leaked information would destroy the code's usefulness. In Woo's film, battle-scarred Marine Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) is instructed that his sole mission is to protect one of these "windtalkers," Navajo Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), from capture, even if it means killing him himself. Enders' mission, however, is complicated by his growing respect for Yahzee, and Enders must ask himself: Could he really murder a fellow Marine, a friend, for the sake of a military code?
The wartime dilemmas raised by Windtalkers are fascinating and heartbreaking, to be sure; too bad the movie spends so little time exploring them. Nor does it really get into the specifics behind its central concept. We're given too few examples of the Navajos actually practicing their skills; as the movie sees it, the Navajos exist primarily to provide ethical conundrums for their (white) comrades. Woo and screenwriters John Rice and Joe Batteer mire themselves in the clichés of the war genre - in the most obvious, Noah Emmerich, as a grinnin' sumbitch Marine who loathes "Injuns," eventually learns the errors of his backwards thinking - and despite the realistic carnage of the battle scenes, Woo can't seem to help himself, and films too many of the horrific confrontations with his trademark slow-motion "bravado"; the filmmaking is aesthetically beautiful but morally questionable. Playing mere character sketches, normally stalwart performers like Christian Slater and Peter Stormare get lost in the muddle, and while it's always a relief to see a relatively restrained Nicolas Cage, he has little to do but glower and sulk - it's a Suffering Through Silence performance. (Adam Beach and Roger Willie are likable as the two Navajos we actually get to meet, but their roles are strictly conceptual.) Windtalkers is by no means an embarrassment, but it's shallow and tiring, and it never comes close to reaching the greatness of its themes.
Sometimes perfect casting is its own liability. In Scooby-Doo, the terrified human hairball Shaggy is portrayed by Matthew Lillard, and even those of us who would have been happy to avoid the movie completely might be tempted to go, just to see what the deliriously eccentric Lillard brings to the role. Well, he's got Casey Kasem's vocal cadences down pat and pops his eyeballs like nobody's business, but the witless, laugh-free script doesn't allow him to explode in the role; Lillard is so good at the exteriors of Shaggy that it breaks your heart when the filmmakers all but throw his talent away. The movie, which can't decide if it's a film for tots or a parody of films for tots - Will the young 'uns get the drug references? Will the older kids stand for the unmitigated, generic dopiness? - is slightly above Josie & The Pussycats in terms of quality, thanks mostly to Lillard and the indefatigable Rowan Atkinson. But overall, Scooby-Doo is a disaster, one that doesn't even get the joke of the personality-free character of Fred being played by Freddie Prinze Jr., the one young actor in Hollywood with even less personality than Fred.