In 1980, Robert Ludlum published 'The Bourne Identity,' the first in a series of popular spy novels that would ultimately be loosely adapted for the big screen. The series tells the story of David Webb, a career foreign service officer and a specialist in Far Eastern affairs. Once a devout family man, tragedy leaves him with nothing, and so (thanks to the CIA and a bit of internal deception), Webb is reborn (get it?) as double agent Jason Charles Bourne. With its own mythology, devious villains and breathless plotting, 'Bourne Identity' spawned four subsequent best-sellers, with Ludlum joining James Bond author Ian Fleming as one of the most elite names in spy fiction.
When 'The Bourne Identity' finally hit movie theaters in 2002 (a year after Ludlum's death), it had an instant leg up over the aging James Bond movie series. Like Bond, Jason Bourne came with a built-in fanbase, but unlike Bond he was free from the shackles of a then-aging film franchise. Gone were the stale quips, campy villains, and ridiculous gadgets and special effects that strained Bond's modern-day credibility. Instead, by going back to basics and concentrating on what we all love about spy flicks (actual spying!) 'The Bourne Identity' may not have exactly re-invented the formula, but it did bring a seriousness and sense of purpose back to the genre.
As directed by Doug Liman ('Go,' 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith') and adapted by Tony Gilroy ('Dolores Claiborne,' 'Proof of Life'), 'Bourne Identity' is expertly plotted as a dramatic thriller, yet makes no sacrifices when it comes to top-notch action. Liman and Gilroy adroitly interweave Bourne's regaining of his memory with what he must do to stay alive, upping both the nail-biting suspense and the human drama -- we're on the edge of our seat not just to see if Bourne will make it out alive, but also to see which new secret of his past he'll unravel next.
No spy flick would be any good, of course, without a great spy, and Damon was an unlikely but very smart casting choice as Jason Bourne. Usually best suited for introspective, dramatic characters, Damon's understated approach works surprisingly well here, expressing his character's full arc of emotions (from bewilderment to anger to remorse) often with just a simple facial expression. Unlike the superheroes that pass for super-agents in some spy flicks (Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible,' anyone?), Damon does not seem superhuman, yet at the same time he's no dainty, tea-sipping James Bond (sorry Pierce Brosnan). Fallible -- fragile, even -- Jason Bourne always seems to be in real danger, which only raises the stakes.
Perhaps best of all, 'The Bourne Identity' works just as well as a stand-alone adventure as it does the first chapter in a franchise. Though it seems unlikely that Jason Bourne will still be gracing cinema screens decades from now (Bond has little to worry about), it's rare to find a spy film that really leaves you eagerly awaiting the next chapter. As I wrote in my review of 'The Bourne Supremacy,' I thought the film's 2004 sequel was even better than the original, and the buzz swirling around the upcoming 'Bourne Ultimatum' is that it's just as strong. So if you've been waiting to catch up with the cinematic adventures Jason Bourne (or just want a quick refresher on the eve of the next sequel) 'The Bourne Identity' is one flick all spy fans are likely to enjoy deciphering.
'The Bourne Identity' makes its HD DVD debut in a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 transfer. Unusual for a film series (where different directors and intents often result in wildly disparate visual styles), both 'Bourne Identity' and its sequel 'The Bourne Supremacy' form a fairly well-matched pair.
While it seems doubtful that Universal has struck a new master since 'The Bourne Identity' first debuted on standard-def DVD in 2003, the source is clean and consistent, with the film's somewhat grainy texture looking film-like instead of irritating. The transfer does have a somewhat tweaked feel, with whites often on the verge of blowing out and a heavy black crush which can eradicate the finest details in the shadows. As a result, contrast seems exaggerated, though the sense of depth gets a boost.
Colors tend to be a bit muted, but that's due more to the film's style than it is any actual desaturation during the telecine. Blues, greens and some of the reds do have vibrancy (though don't expect any shiny pastels here) and are not noisy or smeared. The transfer is also sharp and above-average in terms of detail, and compression artifacts are not apparent.
All things considered, this one rates an appealing four-star video presentation.
Universal has produced a new Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5mbps) for 'Bourne Identity,' although it's not a huge huge leap over the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks found on the previous standard-def DVD releases. An aggressive action flick like this really needs a new Dolby TrueHD or some other high-res audio track to truly excel, but for whatever reason, Universal didn't bother to create one.
That said, with a sound design that really highlights the depth and impact of its sound effects, 'The Bourne Identity' would probably sound great on any audio format. This track in particular boasts some very deep, killer low bass -- you'll feel every car crash, gunshot and explosion. Even the driving, hybrid techno score by John Powell (featuring contributions by Moby) is not only dispersed throughout the soundfield, but seems to accent its relentless percussive elements. At even decent volume, it often feels like a sonic juggernaut. Just as effective, the rears really light up during action scenes. Localization of discrete effects is excellent, with pinpoint accuracy of even minor sounds clear and distinct.
Unfortunately,'The Bourne Identity' is not wall-to-wall action, and it's in the more chatty stretches where this track disappoints, with relatively weak sustained atmosphere, and a flat soundfield that does little to support the film's cold and chilly locations.
While I'm still disappointed that Universal didn't spring for high-resolution on this HD DVD release, overall the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track still delivers the aural goods. Turn it up!
It's hard to imagine a studio could milk a movie for standard-def DVD more times than Universal has this one. 'The Bourne Identity' has hit DVD three times over the last six years, first as a "Collector's Edition," then as a slightly retooled "Explosive Edition," and now (coinciding with this HD DVD release) as part of a dual-set release of both Jason Bourne films in a box set with a bonus disc thrown in of even more extras, dubbed "The Bourne Files."
Thankfully, Universal has culled extras from all three DVD releases for this next-gen edition, and thrown it all together with great high-def video and audio to create a single definitive HD DVD version of 'The Bourne Identity.' Aside from the forgettable text extras on the previous DVD releases, nothing seems to be missing here.
First we have a collection of eight featurettes pulled from the "Collector's Edition" and the "Explosive Edition." The 14-minute "The Birth of 'The Bourne Identity'" is standard-issue EPK fare, including on-set interviews with executive producer Frank Marshall, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, stars Matt Damon, Franke Potente and Clive Owen, plus more cast and crew members. Filled with the usual basic overview and plot recap, this one's pretty useless for anyone with more than a remedial knowledge of the Jason Bourne character.
The next batch of vignettes serve to acquaint us a bit more intimately with key personnel. "From Identity to Supremacy: Jason & Marie" (5 minutes) offers thoughts from Damon and Potente on their characters, as well as what's to come in 'Bourne Supremacy.' Far too short and commercial to be of much interest. "Access Granted: An Interview with Screenwriter Tony Gilroy" (4 minutes) sees the writer explain the challenges in adapting Ludlum's original novel to screen, particularly the (controversial) removal of a key character in the book. Finally, "The Bourne Mastermind" (6 minutes) introduces us to the late author Robert Ludlum via his two friends, editor Martin Greenberg and actor James Karen. Less about the creation of Jason Bourne, and more about Ludlum himself, this one offers much needed context on how the project came to be. (As you'll see below, some new features go even more in-depth on Ludlum.)
Two additional featurettes focus on the production. "The Speed of Sound" (4 minutes) interviews four of the film's sound designers. Too bad this is so basic that it never touches upon any particular scenes or effects at all. "Inside a Fight Sequence" (5 minutes) features some on-set production footage of director Doug Liman as he constructs a key scene with Damon and stunt coordinator Nick Powell.
Another two featurettes offer some background on the film's subject matter. "Cloak and Dagger: Covert Ops" (6 minutes) features one-time CIA agent Chase Brandon giving a very brief history of the organization, plus thoughts on just how realistic a character Jason Bourne is. "The Bourne Diagnosis" (3 minutes) is a quick chat with UCLA psychiatrist Reef Karim, who suggests that Bourne's amnesia in the film stretches the bounds of realism just a little.
Much better than all this rehashed older stuff is a fresh documentary on author Robert Ludlum taken from the "Bourne Files" disc included in the brand new standard-def DVD set. Running about 40 minutes and divided into three parts -- "The Ludlum Identity," "The Ludlum Supremacy" and "The Ludlum Ultimatum" -- this doc tells a very compact, fascinating story of Ludlum's rise as an author, through the success of the Jason Bourne novels, to how the Ludlum Estate was instrumental in guiding the production of the first two films. For any serious Jason Bourne fan, this three-parter offers some great background on the origins of this film franchise.
Next up is some excised material culled from both the "Collector's Edition" and the "Explosive Edition." Dubbed "Declassified Information," this section kicks off with four main Deleted Scenes totaling 7 minutes: "Private Jet," "Bourne and Marie by the Side of the Road," "Psychologist Discusses Bourne" and "Bourne and Marie Practice on Subway." None of these scenes are particularly interesting or enlightening, and were all arguably wise cuts. There is also a "Extended Farmhouse Sequence" that also doesn't offer much beyond what's in the flick. Finally, we have the Alternate Opening and Ending, which were much-touted on the "Explosive Edition." Shot in response to 9/11, the opener turns the whole flick into a flashback(!), while the ending is all touchy-feely and pretty bad. Offering a fresh 4-minute Introduction to this new material are Marshall, Gilroy and actor Brian Cox.
Rounding out the video goodies are two promotional items: the Moby music video for "Extreme Ways," plus the film's original Theatrical Trailer.
Saving the best for last, we have what is probably still the highlight all of the 'Bourne Identity' disc releases, the screen-specific audio commentary with director Doug Liman. Universal inexplicably dropped this track from the "Explosive Edition" (in fact, Liman doesn't appear on any of that set's extras), so it is great to see it return here. Though Liman has gained a reputation in Hollywood lately for being "difficult," he certainly gives great commentary. Precise, thoughtful and highly-informative, he talks extensively about just about every aspect of the film that a fan would want, from adapting the book to casting, throughout the tough shoot in foreign locales (complete with challenging, non-English-speaking crews) and complex effects scenes, to Liman's holistic approach to achieving the proper tone and feel of the movie via all its formal elements. A truly excellent track.
(Note that all of the above video-based material is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video and it's generally pretty mediocre. Only the "Ludlum Chronicles" material is reformatted in 16:9, but it still looks like an 480 upconvert.)
'The Bourne Identity' is a smart, mature and believable thriller that rejuvenated the spy movie genre for modern audiences. With Jason Bourne soon to make his third trip to the big screen with 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' now is a great time to re-live his first adventure on high-def.
Happily, Universal has put together a great HD DVD for this one. The transfer and soundtrack are four-stars all the way, and the studio has culled every major extra from all the various standard-def DVD releases into one nifty package. Following the already-released (and highly rated) HD DVD edition of 'Bourne Supremacy,' Universal is batting two for two with Jason Bourne.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.