(2002)3Karl WilliamsA tight, gripping spy thriller that's nonetheless a pleasant surprise given a notoriously difficult production that included an incomplete script, usually an omen of impending artistic doom. Not to disparage his abilities in any way -- a pair of showdowns with rival assassins are high-octane show stoppers -- but so much of what works about director Doug Liman's make-or-break studio debut is in the absolutely superb, even brilliant, casting. Matt Damon is perfect in a role that requires him to be simultaneously smart but baffled, competent but confused, lethal but little-boy-lost. By comparison, Richard Chamberlain in the late '80s TV-movie version of the same novel plays like a stone carving. Franka Potente is the first solid, realistic female foil to hit this genre in a long, long time, leaving one to wonder what exactly the James Bond producers will do with characters like Pussy Galore and Honey Ryder now that they've been trumped by the modern, feminist approach of Bourne and the spoofing jabs of the Austin Powers series. Praise must also be heaped on the blink-and-you'll-miss-it performance of Clive Owen as a rival assassin, whose chilling performance suddenly twists into eerie poignancy in a Van Gogh-inspired death scene that occurs in a wheat field bursting with crows, an unexpectedly quiet high point of the film. The always reliably efficient Chris Cooper, who never seems to use a movement, facial expression, or vocal inflection without deliberate care, seems at first an odd choice for a villain, until it becomes clear that his character's villainy is hopelessly intertwined with his very bureaucratic flunkeyism. Envisioned by Universal as a franchise-launcher with at least two follow-ups to come, The Bourne Identity is a solid kick-start to a series that will, hopefully, remain grounded in the sort of reality that makes the film a slick, enjoyable thriller.