The Bourne Supremacy
Reviewed in July 2004
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Director: Paul Greengrass. Cast: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Karl Urban, Julia Stiles, Marton Csokas, Franka Potente, Gabriel Mann, Oksana Akinshina. Screenplay: Tony Gilroy (based on the novel by Robert Ludlum).

Photo © 2004 Universal Pictures
Marie Kreutz is in a badly one-sided relationship. Like, not just the kind where one person has to do all the shopping and is the only one who remembers anniversaries. The kind where Marie has to be prepared to chuck her belongings, abandon whomever or whatever she might know, and move at a moment's notice. Say, to India. Minus explanations or assurances that she won't have to do it again.

There is some kind of superhero story to be told about Franka Potente's Marie, but The Bourne Supremacy is not that story, even though Marie is probably the only hero in it. The word feels wrong even for her, padding around the markets in Goa, hoping that her boyfriend "Jason Bourne" (not his real name) isn't having a fever-dream or a paranoid breakout, and that he isn't being shot at by snipers. There is no ring involved, as I'm sure, if asked, Marie might take pains to point out; there isn't anything that these two can chuck into the lava of Mt. Doom to get the wraiths off their backs. They just run, wait it out, run. Jason or Marie habitually refer to places they live or camp out as either on or off "the grid." It's a dangerous, unchosen, constantly sacrificing way to live. There are high costs, and these too are impossible to plan for.

The Bourne Supremacy is an exceptional thriller that is a sequel to a good one, 2002's The Bourne Identity. Both movies manage the neat trick of seeming timely and relevant, even though the Robert Ludlum novels they are based on were written and enjoyed twenty years ago, during the Cold War that all the recent eulogies for Ronald Reagan have taken such pains to misremember. As with The Deep End, Scott McGehee and David Siegel's stylish 2001 suspense drama based on a 1947 book, the whiff of old fashion that tugs at the Bourne movies helps much more than it hurts; there's an ongoing tension in both films between the pull of the past and the ineluctable drive into the future. Doug Liman, the director of The Bourne Identity, played up the antiquity of Ludlum's conception by using film tricks from even earlier in the century, jump-cutting during key sequences and pausing in others while Matt Damon's Jason and Potente's Marie decided whether or not to be lovers—after all, they were already on the lam together. The Bourne Identity was filmed and edited the way Truffaut would have made it, using eloquent real-life locations, crashing people and cars around instead of calling in the digital folks, conveying lots of suspense through facial close-ups and apprehensive bodies, and letting a surprising amount of an international political thriller take place inside blank interiors (empty apartments, unassuming cars). There's also a wide sentimental streak in the first Bourne, most damagingly when the amnesiac protagonist—a fantastically paradoxical phrase—recovers a memory wherein the eyes of a child pause him from doing what he does best in the world, what he's been programmed to do. It's a soft idea, blurring a movie that has been quietly romantic up to that point without being too naïve.

The new Bourne Supremacy, with Paul Greengrass taking over as director, still has a soft spot for traumatized children and interrupted romance, but the movie is structured so differently that it draws power from these ideas instead of giving in to them. Initially, love was just what happened while running from your enemies, though even the first movie was smart enough to keep the romance fairly subdued; this time, though, love is what can't happen because you're running from your enemies. Marie's only here for a few scenes, as opposed to being the co-lead in The Bourne Identity, but her one big moment eclipses everything else she does in the first film. "I don't have a choice," Jason barks at her, in a revealingly begging tone, while she's madly skirting the two of them away from a trailing assassin in the crowded Indian streets. (Damn, does Greengrass know what to do with a car chase.) "Yes, you do," Marie replies, and it's hard to know what she means. Even harder, because the film doesn't let her get more specific. Still, her line echoes through a whole movie, as the choked, sturdy, sad, and infuriated Jason eludes people who are trying to kill him and surgically tracks down the people who are sending them. Matt Damon's eyes, amid all manner of moments, are still trying to figure out Marie's advice: does he have a choice? Between what and what? What is it for Jason Bourne to live or die, he who has no connections, no family, no identity, no life beyond the grid that it's nonetheless his job to stay off? What would it mean for Bourne to show mercy, to wreak vengeance, to reveal himself, to keep hiding? What was Marie trying to say?

The Bourne Supremacy is such a muscular, propulsive, breathless thriller, as unrelentingly paced and physically palpable as Aliens or The Fellowship of the Ring, that it can afford, as those movies do, to begin amidst a sharp emotional exchange and sustain its tone of deep feeling across an improbable amount of mayhem, violence, and technophilia. The opening in India isn't casual; Bourne jogs on the beach like his life depended on it (it might), and Marie has to leaf through his journal to understand how he's feeling—in what is officially the first secret-diary scene in eons that doesn't reveal or explain anything. We really can't tell if Marie and Jason have grown apart or fused together, and our head is full of all this at the moment the rest of the movie crashes in; since there's never a light moment in the next two hours, in a film powered by momentum and orchestration instead of intellect, our curiosities about Jason and Marie are never really replaced by anything, even though our attention is strongly directed elsewhere. The same questions and longings are still waiting on those rare occasions when Jason gets to slow down, and they haven't abated, though we see how the intervening action has changed them, or changed his responses to them. What I'm suggesting is that both Bourne movies feel simultaneously personal and paranoid, but whereas Identity needs to cross-cut two plots to achieve that balance, Supremacy brilliantly imbues the private feelings into all of the public chaos.

And what chaos! Greengrass is a street-choreographer on a par with early William Friedkin, aided no-end by his producers' wondrous commitment to location shooting. With only a few swift establishing shots apiece in Goa, in Berlin, in Paris, in Moscow, in Amsterdam, we know instantly where we are, and what it feels like there; individual locations are so aptly chosen and photographed that the film does appear to spread itself into nooks, crannies, and shadowy corridors of a still-recognizable world. The fleetness of the filmmaking and storytelling—Greengrass doesn't waste time on how people get around, on orders barked at cabbies, on customary transitions—do as much as anything to evoke the necessary mood of the Bourne films: that you can peregrinate all over the globe and your problems don't go away. That world systems of espionage, corruption, and control are integrated, tentacled; you don't knock off one gal or one guy and stop the machinery. No one is insulated, and at the same time, no one fully knows what they're doing. We spend time here with CIA agents, trained assassins, Mafia moguls, and of course with the loose cannon Bourne himself, and everyone's eventually at a loss, just as everyone eventually gets their bearings and lowers the necessary booms. Lots of thrillers, especially recently, try to scare us with big sums, shiny weapons, wild-eyed terrorists. The Bourne Supremacy, edited like a slingshot and shot like an adrenaline high, so that power runs through every frame, makes the smallness and the bigness of the world seem scary in themselves.

It's not that the picture flattens every scene or every emotion to the same level of hysteria. The Bourne Supremacy is very rarely hysterical, and Greengrass knows when to hold a shot so that an individual death is still harrowing (especially for the killer); he knows how to shot-sequence a car collision so that we're aware of every single person who's getting hurt. But all of this madness is in the service of a phantom idea that, while ably personified in all of the movie's steely criminals and counter-criminals, nevertheless eludes understanding. Like the present world, the screenplay is a pile-up of nerve-wracking words: oil, files, snipers, payoffs, ministries, CIA, Langley, Treadstone. As in the present world, but without copping out into simple incoherence, the connections are hard to make but glimmer evilly on the horizon, none of them as scary as the moral and institutional dementia connoted by every small thing that happens, every chilly voice, every quiver of the camera.

Tony Gilroy, who adapted both Bourne screenplays as well as the underrated Proof of Life (the Meg 'n' Russell movie, about a hostage crisis in South America), is gifted at scraping his characters down to their professional obligations without losing their air of unique personality. In all three movies, every nuance of writing or behavior feels like a personal victory, given the dehumanizing contexts of what the films are about. And because The Bourne Supremacy is cast to the nines, with the returning cast members excellent and the additions even better, these tensions are richest here. Joan Allen, as consummate an actress as we have, strides in with her sleek hair and commanding stare, and immediately starts whipping the movie into shape. Greengrass is playing a role here too, no doubt, but look how Joan turns up the intensity so high she instantaneously makes an actress out of Julia Stiles, who in turn holds the line through a blistering scene with Damon. Even Brian Cox, stalwart and craggy, seems taken aback by Allen (as CIA suit and Bourne-hunter Pamela Landy), but he's got more up his sleeve, too.

Though the conventional wisdom is that The Bourne Identity was an unexpected hit, largely catching on through home video and DVD, you realize in retrospect how confidently the first one was shaped—characters and linkages that remain elliptical through that film are starkly illumined here, though not in the traditional ways of sequels that strain to make the old stuff seem new. The Bourne Supremacy works on a conspiratorial logic that undercuts certain illusions left temptingly open by its predecessor, confirms some early suspicions, changes its mind about a few characters and conclusions, only to change them back. With all of this already being juggled, the design team keeps pace with the actors, cinematographer, screenwriter, and director, tersely contrasting the cursor-flashing anonymity of high-tech surveillance with plushily convenient hotel rooms, and again with the crenulated, weather-worn edifices of Europe's major cities. A huge portion of the action takes place in odd semi-public spaces: underpasses, utility closets, backyards, barges, the undersides of bridges, all of them tentative meeting-grounds of the grid and its opposite, whatever that is.

There are unfortunate lapses near the end, even despite a late car-chase through Moscow that is so impeccably staged it would redeem the entire movie if this were a movie that needed redeeming. The lapses aren't too damaging, then, but they are there—some plot-strands and characters get tied up too briskly for a film that's all about the evasiveness of power; the implied connections between various intelligence outfits are taken far too much for granted in a film that's all about high-level infighting and non-cooperation (a timely theme, if ever there was one). A key, eleventh-hour interview between Damon and a sad figure from his past either cements the movie or derails its focus, depending on how you look at it—and Oksana Akinshina, the instantly recognizable actress from Lukas Moodysson's Lilja-4-ever, ranges from forceful to wishy-washy within the scene, in a way that's hard to place. The concluding note of the whole picture screams post-production tack-on, a bad habit of this franchise, and though the scene gives the audience a lot, I wasn't sure I wanted it. Still, after such a sustained spell of powerhouse filmmaking, a confrontation between a man and the world that is energizing, entertaining, and profoundly sad, faults this minor are easy to forgive, even easier to forget. Already this summer, Shrek 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban have redeemed flailing franchises. The Bourne Supremacy does even more, starting from a solid foundation and making the series richer, deeper, sharper, and more shockingly relevant, without skimping even for a second on the expectations of the popcorn crowd. The producers could halt the series now or keep moving through Ludlum's library, and either way it's an honorable choice. For a movie where everyone always seems to lose, that's a pretty win-win situation. Grade: A–

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