Agrimy Italian fishing trawler pulls in a bizarre catch: a frogman with two bullets in his back and a capsule implanted in his hip containing the serial number of a Swiss bank account.
Stranger still, the man can't remember his name -- maybe it's Jason Bourne -- nor why he's fluent in a half-dozen languages. Shortly after he reaches shore, he discovers that he's also adept at martial arts and survival tactics, which is fortunate since about half the Free World wants him dead.
There's something magical about the way a really good movie can make a farfetched premise compelling. "The Bourne Identity," the first in a planned series adapted from the Robert Ludlum's spy thrillers, does the trick with urgent energy, style, intelligence and gasp-inducing stunts. It rockets us from high offices to dark corners with a tone of in-the-know realism. It's the screen equivalent of a red-hot page turner you'd stay up until 4 a.m. to finish.
As assassins chase him across wintry Europe, we learn that Bourne is an American deep-cover agent whose amnesia is a result of a near-fatal assignment. Matt Damon has a complicated role in Bourne, but he carries it off with authority. He might seem miscast as a professional killer, but what better disguise could he have than bland, boy-next-door good looks?
A superb supporting cast, including Brian Cox ("Rushmore") and Chris Cooper ("American Beauty"), feeds us tantalizing details about Bourne's background as they coordinate the plan to eliminate him. We get most of our clues about Bourne, though, as he gets to know himself, through his interaction with a semi-reluctant Swiss accomplice (Franka Potente of "Run, Lola, Run").
He is both a steel-jawed man of action and a cipher wracked by self-doubt. He suspects the worst about his earlier life but tries to behave honorably. He's a stone-cold killer with a conscience. Somehow Damon molds this shadowy mass of contradictions into a character that is plausible and appealing.
He's also a scorching action star. I know from browsing at airport bookstalls that after reading Ludlum's harrowing fight scenes, the last thing you want to do is to get into a fight. You get the same feeling from the film. Bourne and his pursuers throw short, ugly punches intended to kill without drawing attention. After several seasons of elaborate Hong Kong fight choreography, it's riveting to see ragged, glamorless hand-to-hand battles. Damon throws himself into the fray like a pit bull.
Doug Liman, a reliably cool director ("Swingers," "Go"), lavishes precise attention to detail on almost every scene. Whether it's a nail-biting car chase through Paris or the suspicious gaze a Zurich bank receptionist casts at the haggard Bourne, the moment is just right. Liman can uncork leap-out-of-your-seat shocks, draw out suspense scenes with malicious finesse and even ease a touch of romance and droll humor into the yarn.
The English actor Clive Owen, who last year cruised the Web as a supercool hired driver in a series of short Internet films advertising BMWs, plays a relentless assassin in hot pursuit of Bourne. In a BMW, naturally. It's a nice touch, and "The Bourne Identity" has a million of them.
The Bourne Identity
*** 1/2 out of four stars
The setup: Amnesiac with a mysterious past tries to learn his identity -- and why so many people are eager to kill him.
What works: Matt Damon carries off the difficult title role with authority; taut, realistic direction; jump-out-of-your-seat action sequences.
What doesn't: One hyperbolic Tom Cruise-style stunt has Damon leaping down a stairwell and taking out a machine-gunner with a single, impossible shot.
Great scene: A car chase that does for Paris what "The French Connection" did for New York City.
Rating: PG-13 for violence and some language.