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Bourne Supremacy, The Print E-mail
Friday, 23 July 2004
This sequel to “The Bourne Identity” pulls off the rarest of tricks for a sequel: it’s better than the original, and that was quite good itself. As directed by Paul Greengrass, “Supremacy” (the title’s meaning is never explained) is more realistically filmed than “Identity,” which had a sleeker, more machine-tooled look, which contrasted with the fragmentary handling of some of the action scenes. Here, the action scenes were shot with multiple cameras, often hand-held, and though the result seems MTV herky-jerky at first glance, you soon realize that the editing is precise and clear; we may see a lot of angles of a car chase or a fist fight, but they’re almost always the right angles. Greengrass does not lose his story or characters in the stylization of the action.

Granted, the story here is a little muddled and not as dynamic as that of the first movie. There, Matt Damon had lost his memory, and was on an intense search to (a) learn his past and (b) not get killed while doing so. He gradually learned he was Jason Bourne, a CIA-trained killer working for a black-ops setup called Treadstone. His superior doesn’t believe that Bourne lost his identity and sends other Treadstone agents to kill him—unsuccessfully. (One was Clive Owen.)

Here, Jason is found in India with Marie (Franka Potente), who helped him as they fell in love. Why wouldn’t they? Because of his amnesia, Marie was the only person Bourne knew. But he realizes that he’s been found out, that a killer is after him. He makes his getaway without Marie, and heads to Naples. (As with the first movie, this goes all over the map for its authentic locations: India, Italy, Berlin, Moscow, etc.)

Bourne is not a killer any longer, but he has all his trained skills, including languages, fighting techniques and the ability to instantly assess a situation. Bourne often looks like he’s concentrating on something while still being fully alert to everything around him. Before “The Bourne Identity,” most people wouldn’t have thought handsome frat-boy Matt Damon to be suitable for this role, but Damon surprised us all: he was perfect casting for this taut, sensitive and driven man, and he is again here, too.
He learns that two Russians were killed in Berlin, and that the CIA is convinced he did it. Back at Langley, smart agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) gets permission to force Treadstone chief Ward Abbott (the returning Brian Cox) to give her access to the organization’s files. Both of them head to Berlin, sure that Bourne will turn up there.

And of course he does—but as usual with Bourne, his opponents constantly underestimate him. There’s a great scene in which Bourne has his rifle sights trained on Landy with her unaware of this. The scene ends with the line “She’s standing right next to you” which had a great impact on a preview audience.

Greengrass directed the very fine documentary-style drama “Bloody Sunday” a few years ago. It’s unusual to find someone like him in charge of a big summer action movie, but “Identity” was also directed by an unlikely choice, “Swinger” director Doug Liman (an executive producer here), and that paid off. Greengrass exhibits firm but intelligent control over his material, with the dialogue scenes as fast-paced and intense as most of the action scenes.

However, the script by Tony Gilroy, from Robert Ludlam’s novel, is somewhat muddled. The murders in Berlin have something to do with Bourne’s first assignment, which he remembers only in fragmentary images. This was involved with shady dealings for large amounts of money between American opportunists and Russian gangsters—and secret service agents. We never quite get all of this clear, and at times, it’s confusing.

Also, after a death in Berlin, the movie seems to have reached a climax, but along with Bourne, it moves on to Moscow and essentially starts all over again. It kicks into high gear in an astonishing car chase through the streets of Moscow, onto the freeways and into auto tunnels. This is extremely exciting and involving, beautifully staged, imaginatively shot, and absolutely clear every second of its length. This is the best car chase in a hell of a long time, and it will be hard for anyone to top. The audience burst into applause when it ended.

Earlier, there’s a brutal, lively fight between Bourne and another Treadstone agent in Berlin. It’s again in very brief clips, and is almost without any color other than black and white. It’s two agents who’ve been trained to defeat any opponent, pitted against one another. It’s breathtaking.

Chris Cooper appears only in a few fleeting flashbacks, but his position is well filled by Joan Allen, who gradually begins to suspect that her operation is being steered by someone who wants Bourne dead. A CIA psychiatrist tells her that Treadstone agents were wound so tightly they often exhibited mental and physical signs of great stress. None of the others were amnesiacs, like Bourne, but it’s within possibility.

The story has interesting twists: we’re not sure at first why Bourne goes to Russia, but the treacherous American agent is, and informs his Russian contacts (which leads to the car chase). However, Bourne is not after them at all; he’s there on a mission of conscience, of justice, and is merely defending himself—spectacularly.

Technically, the film is outstanding, with crisp sound providing information from unexpected corners; the crash of metal in the car chases is as vivid and sharp as if it were happening in front of you. Most of the film is handled this way, emulating the style of a documentary. But Greengrass is totally in control; these aren’t found scenes shot by cameramen getting what they can—the action scenes are as carefully planned as the dialogue scenes. And the dialogue scenes are as tense and involving as the action scenes. It stumbles a little here and there, mostly in terms of clarity, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And Matt Damon now looks like he’s here for the long haul; he used to seem like a dilettante, someone making movies because it amused him. His complex, controlled performances in both the Bourne movies are everything the films required, and more.

This kind of thing is often described as a popcorn movie—but if you buy popcorn at a “Bourne Supremacy” screening, you’re likely to forget to eat it. What happens on screen is just that involving, just that exciting. This is one of the best action films in a long time.

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