Long before any of us knew who Matt Damon was -- and Damon may still have been in high school -- there was a two-part miniseries of Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Identity. It starred popular television actors Richard Chamberlain (then King of the Television Miniseries) and Jaclyn Smith. I never had the opportunity to watch the original version and decided to rectify that oversight.
I read Ludlum's novel prior to seeing Matt Damon's 2002 remake, and it was one of the best spy thrillers that I've ever read -- not that I've read that many. I thought that the Damon movie did a nice job using it as a starting point and then going in its own direction without adhering too strictly to Ludlum's story. This 1988 version is a lot more faithful to the Ludlum novel. If it lacks the great set pieces that are included in the Damon version, well, it compensates by having a more logical plot and a little more detailed character development.
The plot is compelling. An amnesiac (Chamberlain) awakens from being nursed back to health from a serious injury. He follows a few clues to his life and seems to have an identity named Jason Bourne. After he discovers that he has mercenary-type skills, Bourne comes to believe that he is a notorious European assassin. While he is trying to get away from people who seem to want him dead, he involves the beautiful Marie St. Jacques (Smith), an Canadian attending a convention in Europe. Romance ensues, and the story becomes very James Bond-like with exotic settings, close escapes, action sequences, and a lot of globe-hopping.
Chamberlain's performance as Bourne is a little uneven, though he undoubtedly fits the character of Bourne as written by Ludlum much better than Matt Damon would 15 years later. That's not to say that I don't prefer Damon in the role because I am a fan of the Bourne franchise. Smith really isn't a very good actress at all, but she certainly is pretty to look at. This 1988 version of the story also had the smarts to cast some acclaimed actors in key roles: Anthony Quayle, Donald Moffat, Denholm Elliott, Peter Vaughan, and Yorgis Voyagis among them.
This 1988 version of The Bourne Identity has the better script, but the 2002 remake is the better movie, making use of great special effects and utilizing good casting as well. As it is, the original is fine popcorn entertainment. If I had seen it in 1988, I might have been quite impressed. 25 years later it is a solid telefilm but the action sequences are dated. Grade: B.
I watched The Bourne Identity on DVD on February 15 & 16, 2013.