Mar 5, 2014

DVD Review: The Bourne Identity (1988)

I first saw the ABC two-part miniseries version of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity shortly after reading the trilogy of books when I was in middle school. (Back then, you could still find miniseries on local stations, even years after their initial broadcast. What an age!) I remember mostly liking the first part, then being disgusted with the conclusion for how severely it deviated from the novel (review here), which I had loved, and which was fresh in my mind at the time. Little did I know that later a version would come along that deviated far more—far enough to make this one seem more or less faithful. Viewed now, the miniseries does feel pretty faithful, overall. Unfortunately, the ways in which it varies, while small, prove quite significant in terms of the story. Mostly, they come in the second part of the two-part, four-hour miniseries.

The first half remains generally faithful, and retains the basic setup of Ludlum’s novel. In the thrilling and highly effective opening moments (essentially identical to the opening of the book and the Matt Damon movie, because everyone knows better than to mess with perfection), we witness a man shot on the deck of a ship on a roiling, storm-ridden sea. The wounded man plunges into the Mediterranean, eventually washing ashore in a small coastal fishing town. He’s brought to the local doctor (Denholm Elliot), an alcoholic who sobers up long enough to nurse his mysterious patient back to health. The patient (Richard Chamberlain) cannot recall his own name or what he was doing that got him shot. Or anything. He’s got amnesia. The doctor picks up on some interesting clues, however. The man has spoken several different languages in his delirium, and appears to have undergone plastic surgery. Most strangely, he’s also got the number of a Swiss bank account implanted under his skin on microfilm. Following that clue, a recovered Chamberlain eventually heads off to Zurich where he discovers that his name appears to be Jason Bourne, and he’s got an account with millions of dollars in it. He also discovers that a lot of dangerous people are trying to kill him, and that he seems to possess some very deadly and very impressive skills of his own which we first witness in a well-staged elevator fight. In order to evade the police and criminals who appear to be after him, he’s forced to take a hostage—a beautiful Canadian economist named Marie St. Jacques (Jaclyn Smith). Together they follow a trail of clues about his identity (the best and most compelling section of the miniseries), and after he saves her life she transitions from being his hostage to his lover. The trail leads them into shootouts, car chases, and eventually to Paris.

I’m a fan of Eighties American miniseries. (Noble House is my favorite.) They have their drawbacks, for sure, but I appreciate those drawbacks as inherent in the format. You have to expect a certain degree of soapiness, for one thing, whether it’s present in the source material or not, and the price you pay for lots of big-name guest stars is the realization that some of them will be phoning in their performances for a quick payday in material they consider beneath them. Cheesy music is also a pratfall to be prepared for. (Though composer Laurence Rosenthal, who won an Emmy for this soundtrack, balances out the more hackneyed aspects of his score with at least an equal amount of rousing, genuinely effective bits.) But once you’re in the mood for those drawbacks, the plus side is usually self-evident. You get high production values for television, star-filled casts, and perhaps best of all, genuine location filming.

Budget does not seem to have been a particular concern on The Bourne Identity. It’s a pretty lavish production—especially for TV. Ludlum’s exotic European settings are brought vividly to life with actual location shooting, including plenty of scenic shots—the sort we only ever got in Eighties miniseries. (There’s certainly no time for lingering vistas in the quick-cut contemporary Bourne movies.) The action is generally well handled, including some exciting shootouts and car chases. In fact, during Bourne’s escape from assassins in the streets of Zurich, director Roger Young (Lassiter) expands upon the novel's chase to make it even more exciting than it was in the book. It’s got a Volvo slamming into a streetcar, the sort of stunt which to me (for some reason) typifies Eighties miniseries filmmaking. (Probably because my family and all the families I knew drove Volvos back then, even if I never witnessed any of them crashing into streetcars.)

Unfortunately, The Bourne Identity also suffers from more than its share of that Eighties miniseries cheesiness. At one point, Bourne runs on the beach followed by a gaggle of smiling little children, then they gather all around him laughing, and he starts laughing too. That’s where I draw the line with my own (generally high) tolerance for such cheese. I think it might even have been in slow motion. (I’m fairly certain of it, in fact.) No, that scene is not in the book. And, honestly, I have no idea why it’s in the miniseries! It doesn’t serve the plot other than to motivate a flashback, but it's not even needed for that. Maybe just to assure us that this character is really a good guy, even if it looks for a while like he might be an assassin? If that was the intention, then it backfires a little bit, because the moment comes off as kind of creepy instead.

There’s also a soft-focus love scene shot against a flickering fire. As Bourne and Marie start caressing and undressing (with the fire superimposed over their entwined bodies), one shot lingers forever on a hint of lacy fabric, and then it goes into slow motion as Bourne removes Marie’s dress to reveal some sort of lacy bodysuit that I associate with Joan Collins. And then… It. Goes. On. For. Ever! (To give you an idea of just how long, I've curated for your enjoyment an inordinately large number of screen shots.) Even though it’s too tame to get interesting (this was television, after all, in a less permissive era), the scene fills a full five minutes—at least! Then it concludes by cutely tilting down to an image of cherubs on the end of the bed. Yep, it does. I wouldn’t describe Ludlum’s book as a "bodice-ripper," but I guess that’s exactly what was expected of a Chamberlain miniseries after The Thornbirds? The thing is, as much as I complain about these deficiencies, I expect them in Eighties miniseries... and I don't know if I'd really want this one any other way.

The New York meeting of Treadstone 71, the elite intelligence cabal behind the whole Bourne operation, comes off as ludicrously laughable. Like in the book, they’re based in an upscale townhouse, but why isn’t explained in the miniseries, and it looks like an absurd setting for a high level intelligence meeting. Furthermore, the members are comical, and not for a second believable as any sort of high-level Juju men (to purloin a term from le Carré, not Ludlum). They’re all absurdly old, dressed in tweeds and bow ties or in grandma sweaters, and one of them insists on making his points by shaking a spatula.

Furthermore, the scene appears to be filmed on video, or at least a lower quality film stock than the rest of the proceedings, giving it the air of a high school play. Even the generally reliable Shane Rimmer, who lent his authoritative presence to so many mission control rooms in Bond movies, manages to appear blustery and… bad. He’s playing Alex Conklin, who has for some reason been transferred here from the CIA to the Army and made a General. And Conklin’s fate is just as altered from the book as it is in the Damon movie, making a faithful adaptation of the The Bourne Supremacy pretty much impossible, since the character plays such a large role in the sequel novel. I think that’s the part that annoyed me the most when I watched this as a kid, and I honestly can’t see why they made these changes, even today. It doesn’t benefit the narrative. And the follow-up novel had already been on shelves for a good year before this miniseries went into production, so I would have thought that the producers would take its events into account, laying the groundwork to adapt it should the first one prove successful. Right? I really can’t explain it. I’m not sure how successful the broadcast was, but there never was a sequel. And that’s too bad. Because as many gripes as I have about ABC’s Bourne Identity miniseries, I would have still loved to see an Eighties TV version of Supremacy. My imagination gives it the splendid opulence of another Hong Kong-set opus turned miniseries, Noble House. But, alas, that was not to be. (Neither was le Carré’s Hong Kong novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, turned into a miniseries in that decade, despite the success of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People.)

Further alterations from the book include Bourne’s motivation and his final confrontation with Carlos, the international assassin he eventually learns he was sent to trap. The explanation for Bourne’s mission is ludicrously simplified from the novel to the point where it makes no sense… but at least writer Carol Sobieski paid Ludlum’s brilliant conceit lip service, unlike the Matt Damon film, which simplified it even further. In the novel, Jason Bourne’s ultimate battle with real-life terrorist/assassin Carlos the Jackal ends in a stalemate, as it more or less had to since the ripped-from-the-headlines antagonist was still at large when it was written. By that point in the book, however, capturing Carlos was secondary, plot-wise, for Bourne to learning who Bourne himself really was. Since the answers the amnesiac has been seeking about his identity are simplified in the miniseries, I suppose it was necessary to give the Carlos plot a more definitive conclusion. (And one that effectively rules out an adaptation of the third book, as well, though ABC can’t really be blamed on that front as The Bourne Ultimatum had yet to be written.)

If you come to the 1988 version of The Bourne Identity searching for fidelity to Ludlum’s novel, you won’t actually find it—not after the first installment, anyway. (Though you will find a good deal more of it than is present in Doug Liman’s 2002 film version at least.) What you will find, though, is a pretty good Eighties spy miniseries, with high production values, awesome locations and decent action. You’ll also find a pretty good performance by Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne, and a satisfactory one from the beautiful Jaclyn Smith (Charlie's Angels) as Marie. There are also good supporting turns from genre veterans like Denholm Elliott (A Murder of Quality), Peter Vaughan (Hammerhead, Codename: Kyril) and Anthony Quayle (Strange Report, Espionage). (How on Earth isn’t John Rhys-Davies in this cast? Surely his agent must have been asleep!) And, honestly, if I weren’t such a big fan of the book, all that would probably be enough for me. This miniseries (largely thanks to those legit European locales) is also notable for coming the closest of any screen adaption we've seen yet (save for The Holcroft Covenent) to capturing the feel of a Ludlum page-turner in live action.

Warner Bros.’ DVD (which is now inconveniently out of print, and commands pretty steep prices on Amazon) isn’t ideal. For one thing, it comes in one of those old snapper cases, which were always inferior to Amrays and don’t shelve as easily. But that’s merely aesthetic. The main problem with the disc is that it’s been formatted for modern widescreen televisions (which is odd, since the DVD was released way back in the late Nineties, well before those were the norm) when the series was clearly originally framed for the standard 1.33:1 TV aspect ratio of its day. The weird faux widescreen framing on the DVD results in an oddly cropped image, clearly missing information at the top and bottom of the screen. So if you want to see the miniseries in its proper aspect ratio, you'll have to track down the old VHS. Other than that, however, the picture looks pretty good. The only extras are interactive menus, scene access, and subtitles, which don’t really count as extras. I'm surprised this hasn't been reissued following the success of the theatrical film series, but I hope that still happens. Because for Ludlum aficionados, it's certainly worth seeing.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of Trevayne (1974) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) here.
Read my book review of The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) here.
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my movie review of The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) here.
Read my movie review of The Bourne Legacy (2012) here.


teeritz said...

I could never buy Richard Chamberlain as Bourne. I had read the book a few years before I saw this mini-series on VHS(!) and, for some reason, I always pictured a sans-mustache Burt Reynolds as Bourne. I think it had to do with the cover art of my paperback copy of the book which had Ludlum's name and title in bold block capitals and a pair of RayBan Outdoorsman Aviators with a bullet-shattered lens. The cover always screamed "1970s" to me and Reynolds was big back then.

Tanner said...

Hm, I don't know that I can really picture Reynolds in the role, but then I wouldn't have pictured Chamberlain either. I don't recall having an actor in mind when I first read it...

The Rush Blog said...

Both Richard Chamberlain, Matt Damon and Jeremy Renner proved that any good actor worth his salt could play Jason Bourne or a similar character. I never bought this claim that Damon was the only actor who could star in a Bourne production. I never could buy it, considering that not only was I impressed by him, but also Chamberlain and Renner. Furthermore, Chamberlain was the first actor I saw in a Bourne production.

Tanner said...

True. I definitely don't think that Damon owns the role in any way, shape, or form! And for that reason I still think it was a mistake to make LEGACY a spinoff instead of a direct continuation and just recast Renner in the title role. Bond, Batman, Jack Ryan, and countless other heroes have survived multiple recastings; Bourne is no different.

While I did like seeing Damon and particularly Greengrass return for JASON BOURNE, the character in that movie was barely recognizable as Ludlum's. Can you imagine the academic David Webb making a living as a bare knuckle brawler? To me, the quiet, academic alter-ego is far more interesting--the Jekyll to Bourne's Hyde. Since they decided, for better or worse, to introduce Bourne's father as a character in this one, it would have been kind of interesting if they'd used Chamberlain. I've never really gone in for cute casting, but it would be a reference so few people would likely get that it might have worked.