A case of mistaken identity

Film - Philip Kerr enjoys a good, old-fashioned thriller, especially the car chase

The current television advertising campaign for The Bourne Identity, a good, old-fashioned movie thriller starring Matt Damon, chooses to sell this film as containing "the best car chase since The French Connection". This just goes to show how old-fashioned The Bourne Identity really is, since The French Connection is now more than 30 years old. Not that there is anything wrong with this kinaesthetic way of being old-fashioned. Many is the movie I thought could have been much enlivened by a good car chase. Iris, for example. The Shipping News almost certainly. And just about anything by Peter Greenaway.

The car is, as J G Ballard has observed, an old-fashioned idea; and with traffic in the world's capital cities moving so slowly, I am surprised that there are not more car chases in modern movies. After all, which of us faced with a London traffic jam has not wanted to enjoy the existential freedom of driving a car along a pavement, or up the steps of St Paul's. Soon, alas, the cinema will provide the only opportunity to see a car driving faster than 30 miles per hour.

But is the car chase in The Bourne Identity really the best we have seen since 1971? Frankly, no. The chase in Freebie and the Bean (1974) was certainly more entertaining; Walter Hill's The Driver (1978), with about seven or eight car chases, was very much more exciting; and let's not forget Ronin (1998), which managed, somehow, to make an Audi seem as sexy as Bond's DB5.

The car chase in The Bourne Identity lasts six or seven minutes. It takes place in Paris and features an old Mini Cooper; and the car chase most easily recalled, as the Mini zips through a series of narrow streets and down a flight of steps, is not The French Connection but The Italian Job (1968). It's a pretty good car chase as car chases go - not least because the Paris police, who, let's face it, are bastards to a man, come off worse - but to make one seven-minute sequence, in a film lasting 122 minutes, the whole focus of your advertising seems, well, a little unin-spired. The advertising agency might just as easily have focused on the excellent performance of my own nine-year-old niece, Katie Thynne, who appears in a memorable sequence lasting about the same length of time.

Matt Damon plays a man in a wetsuit rescued by some Russian fisherman half-dead from the sea, somewhere off the coast of Italy. He has two bullets in his hypothermic body, but quickly makes a recovery that would impress not just the man from Nazareth but also Sergei Korsakoff. He it was, you will doubtless remember, who first described Korsakoff's syndrome, a group of symptoms that we now know better as amnesia, which, let's face it, is an even more old-fashioned idea in Hollywood than a car chase (see Random Harvest, or Love Letters, both made in 1945).

Damon's character cannot remember who he is (I have the same problem with Matt Damon) nor how he came to be floating in the sea with two holes in his back. The only clue to his identity is a neat little implant in his buttock that, when squeezed, projects the number of an account at a Zurich bank named - I wonder, do Americans speak German? - the "Gemeinschaft Bank". Since Damon turns out to be a highly trained assassin working for a "black bag" operations unit in the CIA, and the CIA has for years been nicknamed "the Company", the idea that Damon, aka Jason Bourne, should be possessed of an account at the "Company Bank" seems a little cloth-eared, to say the least. Could not the scriptwriters adapting Robert Ludlum's novel have devised a better German name for a Swiss bank than this?

Aware of some very special personal skills - he speaks several languages and is a martial arts expert - and equipped with lots of euros and several passports in different names, our absent-minded hero sets out to discover who he really is and what he does for a living, etc. Meanwhile, for some reason that I was frankly unable to fathom, the CIA sets out to eliminate him. But that's what the CIA does in the old-fashioned world of Ludlum, and it made a refreshing change to be back with CIA villains (shades of Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View) as opposed to Arab terrorists of one form or another.

All complete tosh, of course, but somehow quite enjoyable, diverting tosh none the less. And in the final analysis, while this is not a film with the best car chase since The French Connection, nor indeed, the most exciting film about amnesia since Mulholland Drive (2001) or Memento (2000), it is nevertheless an extremely entertaining bit of escapist hokum. But just try making a unique selling proposition for a TV commercial out of a brief like that.

The Bourne Identity (12) is on general release