Identity crisis: A spy hunts for ... himself

One thing about James Bond, he always knows who he is and what he's doing. Not so for the new breed of spies and secret agents.

"Bad Company" stars Chris Rock as a streetwise hustler bumbling his way through a dangerous mission his more sophisticated twin brother was supposed to do. And now there's "The Bourne Identity," with Matt Damon as a spy so afflicted by amnesia that he doesn't know his name, much less the assignment he's supposed to carry out.

Confusion grows as he tracks down clues to his identity. There's a safety deposit box in a Swiss bank with a passport that promises to reveal all – but wait, there are half a dozen different passports squirreled away there! Which is the real him? Is there a real him?

Universal is promoting "The Bourne Identity" as a different thriller, energized by the idiosyncratic style of director Doug Liman, who became an indie-film leader with "Swingers," an edgy romantic comedy, and "Go," a "Pulp Fiction" wannabe.

"The Bourne Identity" has his distinctive stamp, with fidgety camera work and lightning-quick editing. You might say he's transformed the espionage thriller by giving it his own ornery touch. More skeptically, you might say he's gone commercial by making a thriller in the first place, throwing in just enough ornery touches to make it seem more adventurous than it really is.

I lean toward the skeptical view. A truly fresh treatment of Robert Ludlum's novel wouldn't rely so heavily on shootouts, car chases, and boy-meets-girl clichés. Damon isn't exactly a daring choice as the memory-lacking hero, either, although German actress Franka Potente – of "Run Lola Run" fame – brings an offbeat (though not always convincing) spirit as the trusting stranger who becomes his confidante. The mercurial Brian Cox and scowling Chris Cooper are fun to watch.

It's tempting to speculate that the befuddled protagonists of pictures like "The Bourne Identity" and "Bad Company" reflect the disoriented state of today's uncertain world. This would be an overstatement. For one, these films borrow tricks from pictures made years ago – try to watch "Bourne" without thinking of "The Manchurian Candidate." Also, they were in production long before Sept. 11.

Still, global relations have appeared much less stable since cold-war dividing lines crumbled and terrorism instigated new kinds of boundary-blurring warfare.

The competence and coolness of Agent 007 mirrored the underlying optimism of a bygone era, and it will be interesting to see if "Die Another Day," arriving in theaters this fall, updates his image.

In the meanwhile, we can ponder the perplexities of spooks less capable, less self-assured, and more in tune with a planet that has lost many of its bearings.

• Rated PG-13; contains violence and vulgar language.

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