The Bourne Identity (1988)

Quick: who played the female lead in the 2002 movie version of Robert Ludlum’s classic Cold War thriller “The Bourne Identity?”  I could give most people an hour and, like myself, they wouldn’t come up with it.  But, back in 1988, when Matt Damon was just a kid in Boston, American miniseries royalty did their version.  I’m talking about Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, two of the biggest and most important stars of the genre (Richard straddled the great and not-great while Jaclyn excelled at the camp side of things). 

As soon as we see “and Denholm Elliott as ‘Washburn’ (another 80s regular) in the credits, not even a minute of time, Richard Chamberlain is on the deck of a ship getting shot and falling into the water, seemingly dead, but washing up on the rocky shore pretty quickly.  He apparently has learned nothing since 1980 in “Shogun” where he barely survived that shipwreck.

Two Frenchmen drop off the body at Dr. Denholm Elliott’s clinic, where Dr. Denholm is soused (the character, for sure, the actor, quite possibly).  Dr. Denholm does a series of surgeries on our hairy-chested hero, who remains comatose the whole time.  Except when he’s muttering incoherently, that is.  Dr. Denholm extracts what seems like a microchip from Richard’s leg and it has a bank account number on it.

Richard thrashes and yowls in German, much to the amusement of the local kids and finally wakes up.  Introductions are not made since Richard can’t remember who he is.  “I need to know where to send my outrageous bill,” Dr. Denholm cracks wise.  He tells Richard his body is filled with bullets, his mind with languages, scars fixed up beautifully and (don’t laugh) plastic surgery! 

As Richard jogs on the beach with the children in a wildly off-tone montage (though he has a fleeting image of an Asian child at one point that might be important), Denholm begins to think Richard might be the mysterious assassin “Carlos” that the world is looking for, especially since Richard can pull apart a gun in mere seconds. 

His location compromised, Richard flees to Zurich, hoping to find answers in the bank.  Though he doesn’t remember his name, he seems to know that he only stays in style and tells the cab driver to take him to the most expensive hotel in Zurich.  His mind is spry enough to get the hotel manager to write out his name: J. Bourne and a few other details.

Then it’s off to the bank, where they are watching him as much as he’s watching for clues.  He’s not at all subtle, but no one seems to mind, so he gets to play with the $15 million in the account as he wishes.  He’s nearly killed in the elevator and then again in the lobby, but naturally escapes.  The fun of Ludlum’s book is watching Bourne learn what he’s capable of, but it’s even more fun here watching it happen to Richard Chamberlain’s perpetually blank face.

He avoids two more goons in his hotel lobby by grabbing onto Dr. Jaclyn Smith, a world-famous economist.  He’s awfully rough with her as he runs from the goons, but our Jackie is a tough gal, despite her incessant whimpering (“My wrist is broken!”  “No it isn’t!”–it’s not about the dialogue).  Her expert driving skills, tissue-paper-thin car and the inability of the goons to move very quickly manage to evade four killers and all the usual garage doors, check point barriers, etc.  “Comb your hair, you look a mess,” Richard rudely tells our leading lady.  We’re a long way from 2002, where no self-respecting actress would be playing anyone this simpering.  Jaclyn doesn’t so much as karate chop him unconscious or turn a napkin into a deadly weapon when they head to a restaurant based on Richard’s vague memory.

In the restaurant, Richard gets more information, finding out he may be the assassin of the American Ambassador.  By this point, Jaclyn has fixed her mascara, but still has yet to utter a line stronger than “please don’t do this to me” or “I don’t want to be involved.”  It’s off to wheelchair-bound Bill Wallis’ apartment, where things become more confusing.  Bill, perhaps on loan from making the heaving “War and Remembrance” at the same time, is killed ten seconds after we meet him and Jaclyn actually attempts to show some guts by escaping from a window, unsuccessfully.  She then takes advantage of Richard’s head injury to escape her car and run through the streets of Zurich yelling wildly…but luckily, she runs right into the goon patrol and tells all she knows.

Richard remembers an address and they seem to know him there, but so do his enemies, one of whom he kills just opening the door.  Luckily, they are the same size (if off by about two decades age-wise), so Richard slips out in the other guy’s clothes, but the bad guys are there to meet him.  So is Jaclyn.  She’s been duped, so Richard tells her to “run, scream your head off,” but the head baddie tells his henchman to “take her to the river, kill her.”  That’s a shame, because she does the screaming and running thing so well.  It’s all she does! 

Richard kills the two goons who kidnap him and then makes a curious decision.  Well, curious because it’s silly, but it’s part of the plot, which is the height of nonsensical entertainment, so why should this moment make any more or less sense?  He decides to go after Jaclyn.  Why?  She’s done nothing to help him!  He arrives right as the goon is about to rape her, so she’s wailing and yelping understandably.  Richard chases the goon and fights with him, but shots are fired by (get this), Jaclyn in a bra and torn shirt.  She buttons up the shirt by the time she helps Richard get to safety.  He saved her life, so now it makes sense that they are bonding.  “I can’t do this.  I don’t know how to do this,” she mutters to herself as she drives around Zurich with Richard passed out in the car.

Jaclyn spirits them away to the country so they can puzzle it out, trying to guess at who he is, what he knows, etc.  There’s the inevitable post-shower moment where Jaclyn is drying her hair by the fire.  He gazes at her longingly as he tries to get her to go back home to Canada.  She wants to go with him to Paris because her economic background can help him at the bank.  And her story has changed.  She doesn’t want to help him just because he saved her life, but because she’s convinced he’s not a killer.

“Put your arms around me, Jason.  I need to be held, even if it’s just for tonight.  We need to forget the violence.”  That has to be the least well-written invitation to sex either one of these TV cheeseballs has ever uttered.  Literally, she went from discussing her knowledge of banking to bedding him.  And woah, is the love scene a doozie.  By the fire, everything in slow motion, him with scars and scabs, her seemingly perfect, and Laurence Rosenthal’s music a mass of violins.  Post-sex, Jaclyn lays her head on his chest like every post-sex scene of the decade and they go back to discussing what was important before they had sex. 

After that, it’s off to Paris, thankfully, because I can’t take another moment in the country.  In not her best move, Jaclyn had called her co-worker in Canada to find out about Treadstone, a company name Jason remembered.  It’s a top-secret CIA group, he tells her on a public phone.  Oh, like he’s not going to end up dead?  Our leads then go to the library and microfilm their way through the headlines (yes, microfilm–it’s 1988, don’t forget) while killing time before going to the bank.  At least they didn’t try to have sex again. 

We know for sure Richard isn’t Carlos because we see the real Carlos giving orders to kill him and Jaclyn in a confessional booth in a small town.  Our leads, now dressed up as nebbishy tourists, go a-bankin’.  Except that she’s been followed into the bank…

And we pause as Part 1 ends.

Part 2 starts with Jaclyn having outwitted the killer (she’s getting good at this), and Robert formulating a plan to save her.  It works too.  Jaclyn calls her friend back and guess what?  Dead.  She has something of a nervous breakdown, running around Paris where, of course, the goons find her after about three paces. 

In NYC, a group of very unlikely and idiotic experts finally fill us in on the story.  Jason Bourne is their trained assassin, made that way to kill Carlos.  Either they have done a great job or a lousy job.  None of them seem to know. 

From the banker, they figured out something is going down at a dress shop.  Richard, adopting a Texas twang, goes in and starts picking out dresses (he says for a woman, but…) and because he looks so wealthy, they let him rest in the owner’s office while they shop for him.  He finds yet another number on the inside of a drawer.  Why he looked there is any one’s guess.

Jaclyn trots off to the Canadian Embassy (which has a gold plaque that says “Canadian Embassy,” that’s how we know), but there she finds out they just want to use her to get to him.  So, she does what she does best, runs away, slowly enough to be caught by a wheelchair brigade, but faster than the police the Canadians send after her. 

The Parisian dressmaker knows everything about Carlos and Jason and spills all the beans dramatically on a lunchtime cruise down the Seine.  According to her, Jason Bourne and Carlos have been chasing each other around the globe assassinating people in order to top the other one for years.  It’s heavy stuff.  Delivered in a heavy accent.

Jaclyn shows up in Richard’s room and we get the following discussion, the kind that is no doubt responsible for the entire Canadian inferiority complex.

“I thought you would be in Canada by now.”
“They are after you.”
“The CANADIANS?” (with a contorted face as if he’s holding back a guffaw)

Oh, and to top that, she confesses that she loves him.  Bring back the violins, folks, but please, not the roaring fire. 

There’s a hitch.  As they pass by a newsstand on the way out of Paris, they see Jaclyn’s head shot on the front of every paper (she’s the only economist with a head shot) claiming she is wanted for the murders in Zurich.  Actually, that is courtesy of the Americans, trying to bring him in.  He has 24 hours or they will kill him.  Really?  How?  They haven’t been able to find him so far, now have they?  The Eurogoons attack the NYC brownstone and kill everyone, though two manage to escape . They steal the files, plant his fingerprints, step over the dead bodies and dash.

Jaclyn believes he’s not the killer everyone thinks he is, because he has repeatedly saved her.  “I couldn’t love the man you believe you are,” she says as they argue in circles over whether they should part or turn themselves in.  Then, like a bolt of lightning, Jaclyn sees it all clearly!  All of these images, memories and thoughts have been planted in his head.  He’s not really an assassin.  Her monologue ends with, “for God’s sake, love me Jason!” and his mind whirls.  What should he do?  Frankly, a life on the run killing famous people for money seems better than listening to her rattle on so, but he picks her.  DUH!

Novels and movies of this ilk are based on incomprehensible plots (allowing for sequels, lost childhoods, all that blather) and this one apparently revolves around a French politician, but not Charles de Gaulle.  The other one.  Richard figures out where Carlos is and rushes after him.  Carlos, dressed as a friar, escapes.  Richard has memories of him dressed as a killer in a jungle.  Oh, and the dressmaker bites it, in the confessional.  Richard goes to some political meeting and hides in the shadows outside.  If you can make sense out of this paragraph, you’re a better person than I. 

The French politician, the one who isn’t de Gaulle but looks just like him, dresses just like him, etc. (and played by Anthony Quayle) is accosted by Richard, who accuses him of being Carlos’ messenger.  So Anthony slaps him across the face with his gloves…twice!  Is this Dumas or Ludlum?  Jaclyn and Richard convince Ze General that zomeone in hiz houze is working for Carloz.  He iz not convinzed, but it turnz out that ze mole is hiz…WIFE!  Of courze he doez not dizcuzz theze matterz with hiz wife, but he doez bring home ze paperz and she muzt go through hiz zafe.  All of zeze people were part of the plot to kill hiz beloved zon. 

There is much chasing and gunfire in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and we find out that Mrs. Not de Gaulle has been Carlos’ lover since age thirteen.  And Richard is not Jason Bourne. Oh, his face has been fixed (tee hee) to look like Bourne, but he’s not the killer.  Jaclyn was right after all!  And she’s not even smart. 

The last remaining member of the dippy US team explains all the rest of the details to Richard (he taught him to play tennis and talked history on top of coming up with the elaborate cover story to explain The Bourne Identity).  But, he too dies and now no one has any proof, so Richard and Jaclyn have to get Carlos themselves.  Through Mrs. Not de Gaulle, who has been shot by Mr. Not de Gaulle.  Richard gives him a rah rah speech not to kill himself, finally going full tilt for the first time verbally.  He’s had to save his energy for all of those physical stunts.  But, it works!

To lure Carlos to them, Richard writes the Treadstone address on dead Mrs. Not de Gaulle’s back in lip stick.  Old school, sure, but it just may work!  It does, but it takes a blessed long time to get there, with Jaclyn nervously sweating it out in a nearby car with a Senator (she’s bested assassins all over Europe, but she can’t overcome an aging Senator at this point?).  Carlos (Yorgo Voyagis, a long way from playing Joseph in “Jesus of Nazareth”) shows up and he and Richard grapple in one of those fights where they knock down every wall, break every vase, etc.  Richard is stabbed, but Carlos goes over the railing and…doesn’t die like we think he does.  A bunch of people swarm in, Carlos is finally killed and Richard collapses into Jaclyn’s arms.  “It’s over,” she says as he does the wailing this time. 

As I said, we’re a long way from “Shogun” in terms of miniseries action bliss, but “The Bourne Identity” isn’t horrible either.  Overly long and repetitive, yes, but that’s all in the Ludlum book.  As always, and I don’t know how, Richard Chamberlain manages to be dashing and convincing, the most unlikely of heroes.  Jaclyn could play this role in her sleep (and did a few times), but the romance would have been utterly ridiculous in any other hands. 

Franka Potente.

She was the female lead in the 2002 version.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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