Grade: B

Is there any hoarier premise for an action thriller–the old chestnut about an amnesiac, rescued from certain death and hunted by shadowy enemies, who just might be some sort of government agent? The premise is so musty that it was the basis for an old, long-forgotten TV series (Herb Brodkin’s “Coronet Blue,” which aired briefly in 1967); even this take on the scenario by Robert Ludlum is a retread, having previously served as the basis for not only his book but an ABC miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain back in 1988.

Yet in the hands of Doug Liman, who gets his big studio break after helming the intriguing indies “Swingers” and “Go,” “The Bourne Identity” seems almost freshly minted. Thanks to the director’s clear eye for composition and skill at choreographing brisk action sequences, the great work of the design team led by Dan Weil, Oliver Wood’s classy cinematography (which makes good use of the European locales and the satisfyingly jagged effect a hand-held camera can provide if sensitively employed) and Saar Klein’s sharp editing, the picture takes viewers on a old-fashioned roller-coaster ride hearkening back to all the Hitchcock classics about a “wrong man” on the run from relentless pursuers. There’s nothing terribly suspenseful in the plot–we’re made aware within minutes who the poor fellow fished out of the Mediterranean with two bullet holes in his back is and what his mission was, and why rogue elements of the U.S. intelligence establishment are out to get him; nor is there much doubt about how things are going to turn out. But Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron have done an astute job of updating Ludlum’s Cold War tale to the contemporary world, and Liman and his collaborators, like Hitchcock himself, prove adept at grabbing the viewer and carrying him along even in the absence of plausibility and any great twists or shocking revelations. The picture may seem a weightless thing in retrospect, but while it’s unfolding it’s exciting and engrossing.

This kind of piece, of course, depends not only on the craftsmen behind the camera but the leads in front of it–plural, needless to say, because every runaway hero requires an attractive, unexpectedly resourceful girl to help him along the way. Liman is fortunate indeed in the casting of Matt Damon and Franka Potente in these roles. Damon ably exhibits both the strong physicality and the underlying emotional vulnerability needed to make Jason Bourne–the name by which the character is mostly known in the picture–a guy one can both buy as a master CIA assassin who can outfight and outshoot anybody and get out of the toughest of crapes, and sympathize with despite his character’s admittedly dark past. What’s great about Damon’s work here is that he shows himself not merely a credible action star but a quite capable actor; with this performance and his excellent turn in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he establishes himself as one of the best young leading men in the business. For Potente, who starred in Tom Tykwer’s cult classic “Run Lola Run,” the role of Marie Kreutz could represent her breakthrough to international stardom, much as similar parts brought European leading ladies to the attention of American audiences in the thirties and forties. She captures the character’s uncertainty, fear, growing confidence and increasing affection for Bourne without falling into cliche, and exudes a sense of foreign mystique which is always fetching. The villains have been well-selected, too. Gloomy-faced Chris Cooper manages to suggest a real streak of meanness as the CIA operative who’s Bourne’s nemesis, while beefy Brian Cox easily inhabits the role of Cooper’s more politically attuned superior. There are also a number of steely-eyed killers sent out to terminate Bourne, with extreme prejudice as they used to say, and among them Clive Owen stands out for a scene in which he and Damon stalk each other in the wintry French countryside. Julia Stiles is perfect in a small secondary role–that of a well-appointed young woman who presides over surveillance devices at a CIA haven in the French capital. It’s not a showy part, but the actress makes the most of it.

“The Bourne Identity” doesn’t attempt anything innovative, but it succeeds by doing the tried and true very effectively: even an old-style car chase through the streets of Paris has real electricity to it. The picture is proof that though the material may be recycled, a well-chosen cast and a high level of craftsmanship can still work wonders with it. Sheer professionalism, it appears, is sometimes enough; in this case it makes even a Ludlum potboiler feel like a solid Le Carre–no mean achievement.