Sylvester Stallone was fed up with unfulfilling supporting roles, so he created Rocky Balboa and wrote himself a career. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did the same thing with GOOD WILL HUNTING, winning Academy Awards for their screenplay and writing a role that scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams. Damon himself was nominated for Best Actor and deserved it, but ultimately lost to Jack Nicholson (who also deserved it).

Damon gave a strong performance in the excellent card shark drama ROUNDERS in 1998, and Steven Spielberg snagged him for the title role in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Voice-over work (TITAN A.E. and SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMMARON) complemented self-deprecating comedic roles in Kevin Smith films. Damon proved himself an interesting leading man (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, ALL THE PRETTY HORSES) and a valuable ensemble player (OCEAN’S ELEVEN), but until THE BOURNE IDENTITY this talented actor had never taken the lead in an action film.

Now he has, and he kicks its ass.

As an Italian fishing boat navigates choppy Mediterranean waves, the crew spots a man’s body floating in the water. He is riddled with bullets and barely alive. As the ship’s doctor removes multiple slugs from the stranger’s body, he finds a piece of microfilm containing a Swiss bank account number implanted in his hip. When the man finally awakens, he can’t tell anyone what happened because he doesn’t remember anything. He doesn’t know who he is, who shot him or why he was left for dead.

As he follows the account number to Zurich, he discovers that he can speak and understand multiple languages. His reflexes suggest years of martial arts training. Even bigger surprises are waiting for him in the safety deposit box bearing the account number. Numerous passports bearing his face boast multiple identities and nationalities. He finds a massive wad of cash and a loaded gun. There’s also a name — Jason Bourne — and an address in Paris.

His search for answers quickly spirals into a deadly escape, but he doesn’t know who he’s running from or where he should be running to. Desperate and confused, he makes a deal with a girl called Marie, played by Franka Potente. He’ll give her $10,000 cash if she’ll drive him to Paris, no questions asked. What they find just might get both of them killed.

The U.S. government knows who the man is. Bourne’s superiors think he’s gone rogue, and dispatch several international assassins to take him down. It’s one of the film’s most interesting aspects — Bourne sincerely doesn’t know who he is, and the men who order his death sincerely don’t know that he doesn’t know. Everything is revealed to everyone else as the film builds to an exciting, dramatic and satisfying ending.

Matt Damon owns this film. If someone throws a punch at Bourne, he automatically blocks the punch and delivers a devastating counter-move. He doesn’t even know where these skills are coming from, and Damon plays such surprise at his own abilities perfectly. No one knows less about Jason Bourne than Jason Bourne himself, and Damon sells it like a pro. He’s a strong dramatic actor and a powerful physical presence in a film that requires a lot of both. Damon looks every bit as dangerous as Jason Bourne is.

Franka Potente made a huge impression in RUN LOLA RUN, and she’s wonderful here. She and Damon share a perfectly natural chemistry together, something owed just as much to Damon’s effortless charm as Potente’s earthy allure.

Chris Cooper and veteran character actor Brian Cox are excellent as the men in charge of the covert operation Bourne was involved with. Cooper’s rabid intensity is particularly effective. Clive Owen is the most memorable of the assassins sent to kill Bourne.

Julia Stiles is in it, too, and that makes me happy.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY moves remarkably well thanks to the exciting and efficient storytelling of director Doug Liman, whose credits include SWINGERS and GO. Most young directors tend to put style and flash before storytelling, but this film would have made the late, great John Frankenheimer proud. It features an incredible car chase sequence that could have come right out of RONIN. Liman has crafted an intelligent film that gives equal time to intrigue, action and emotion. He may be just as new to action films as Matt Damon is, but he’s equally capable.

SWINGERS and GO saw Liman acting as his own director of photography, but for BOURNE he hands the cinematography reins to Oliver Wood, who shot DIE HARD 2 and U-571 among many others. The film occurs in winter and was shot largely in Paris and Prague, giving Wood a palette of beautiful European architecture covered by ubiquitous, slowly falling snow. It’s a great looking film.

Writers Tony Gilroy (PROOF OF LIFE) and W. Blake Herron do an excellent job of updating plot and dialogue from the 1980 Robert Ludlum novel on which the film is based. Ludlum, who passed away last year, served as one of the film’s producers. (A made-for-TV movie, starring Richard Chamberlain and Jacalyn Smith, was made in 1988.) Ludlum wrote two more Jason Bourne novels: THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. And since THE BOURNE IDENTITY has rocketed past the $100 million mark in a summer packed with blockbusters, Universal is already looking to make SUPREMACY a reality. Damon has stated that he’d love to play Bourne again as long as the script is as good as the first one.

The gimmick of THE BOURNE IDENTITY is that Bourne doesn’t know who he is. Now that he’s starting to find that out, future installments will have to make sure the character is interesting for who he is rather than who he thinks he might be. As long as Matt Damon is back in Bourne’s shoes, that’s not going to be a problem.