The Bourne Identity is a soothing thriller; The Fast Runner is no ethnographic slog.

Reviews of the latest films.
June 14 2002 12:42 PM

Four Days of the Cipher

The Bourne Identity is a soothingly mundane amnesia thriller; The Fast Runner is anything but a ceremonial ethnographic slog.

Still from The Bourne Identity
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne

Matt Damon is a fine young actor, not expansive but intensely focused, which makes him just right for the amnesiac hero of the trim thriller The Bourne Identity (Universal). The movie is a generic paranoid espionage fantasy, but its proportions are refreshingly correct. It moves quickly, adroitly, and without fuss; it doesn't give you time to reflect on the inanity—and the Cold War datedness—of its premise. Amnesia is always a dicey plot device, and The Bourne Identity pushes it to unprecedented heights of illogic. Its protagonist, who's found floating off the coast of Marseilles with two bullets in his back and the number of a Zurich safe-deposit box in some sort of laser body-implant, has no idea who he is. But he has somehow retained lightning martial-arts reflexes, fluency in a handful of languages, and the wired instincts of a superspy.

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An actor like Damon's pal Ben Affleck, who specializes in shallow guys suddenly out of their depth, might have played the gulf between comprehension and prowess for campy laughs; but Damon keeps his expression furtive through screeching chases and bone-crunching fisticuffs. The recessiveness of Damon's personality makes it easy to imagine the character blanking on his own identity: He is wittily contained. So is the movie. Its best moment makes a joke of the poker-faced tone. After a hair-raising car chase, Damon and Franke Potente—as the down-on-her-luck chatterbox whom he pays to drive him to Paris—sit in stunned silence, dumbly processing the hell they've just been through, the hysteria all the more evident for being repressed. It's Potente's character who gives the movie heart. She's wary but smitten, and she seems to be having the time of her life until she realizes that at any second it could be terminated with extreme prejudice.

The director, Doug Liman, gave his last feature, Go (1999), such a headily syncopated syntax that its ultimate lack of substance was a slap in the face: I loved his virtuoso technique but felt hustled by the movie's coy non-resolution. Liman's work is less ostentatiously inventive here, which is better for the material. The Bourne Identity recalls the chill, low-key efficiency of The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Three Days of the Condor (1975); it could have been called Four Days of theCipher. Probably the most animated character is a beleaguered CIA agent (Chris Cooper) who bellows things like, "I want Bourne in a body bag by sundown!" As Damon and Potente wander around Western Europe in search of his past, robotic assassins (the deadliest played by Clive Owen) are dispatched by an even more robotic Julia Stiles, who sits before a bank of monitors and short-wave radios. Stiles is a star and potentially a major actress, and most of the audience will assume that her character is going to end up in the thick of things. Er, no. Her non-presence is a bigger brain-teaser than the identity of Bourne. Was she dating someone on the crew?

The Robert Ludlum novel that's the movie's source has a more original—if convoluted—outcome, but there is something soothingly nostalgic about the mundane conspiracy at the core of the film: It summons up a thriller era when the only people who ever seemed to die were spies, counterspies, and the odd, overweening dictator or Party apparatchik. After 9/11, a world of old white guys playing Cold War chess with sundry operatives feels positively quaint.

A still from The Fast Runner
A scene from The Fast Runner

The Canadian Inuit saga The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (Lot 47), directed by Zacharias Kunuk, is one of the most enthralling three hours you'll ever spend at the theater. No, make that one of the most enthralling two-and-a-half hours: The first 30 minutes make you think you're in for a ceremonial ethnographic slog, with people you can barely tell apart (if you're not an Inuit, that is) sitting in smoky, dimly lit igloos chewing walrus meat and belching loudly. Eventually you get your bearings, and the primordial power of this ancient legend—set in the northernmost regions of the Arctic—begins to take hold.

This is not the Great White North of Insomnia, with its breathtaking crags and cold-sharpened clarity. The landscape of The Fast Runner is barren and flat and stretches out so endlessly that you can practically see the curvature of the Earth. Early on, the nomadic protagonist, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), runs afoul of the dog-kicking patricidal rapist villain, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), when he wins the hand of the demure Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) in a sort of head-bashing contest. "I wolf you," he tells her. Having settled down with the Eskimo of his dreams, he makes the mistake of going caribou-hunting with Oki's slatternly sister Puja, whom he takes, after mutual serenading and hot sex, as his second wife. It was evidently no easier to juggle two women in the 11th century than it is now, and soon Puja is whining to her brother, who comes after Atanarjuat with spears blazing.

You will recognize the second half of the film—it's like Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, a Clint Eastwood picture in Inuktitut. That doesn't make it any less astounding, however. You have never seen a sequence like the one in which the hero, buck naked, runs for his life from the raging Oki and his pals through endless expanses of snow and ice water, his feet cut to ribbons, toward a sun that never sets. Even with the slightly hazy digital video image, the pale, slanted northern light makes the men seem like wraiths. It is a landscape of the soul—an apt setting for the primal revenge drama, both rough and sacred, that is among the first and most momentous of all stories.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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