The Bourne Supremacy

July, 2004, Thriller

Directed by:Paul Greengrass

Starring:Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Karl Urban, Gabriel Mann, and Joan Allen

The Bourne Supremacy

Good sequels are very hard to make because it's always hard to match the expectations of audiences who've so enjoyed the original. Godfather, Part 2 is an exception to the rule that subsequent efforts to revisit the same ground are almost always a disappointment. The critics have said that Spiderman 2 is another example of that phenomenon; I'm happy to report that this slick spy-thriller manages to actually improve upon The Bourne Identity, its surprisingly predecessor, which became one of 2002's most commercially successful releases.

Both films revolve around the efforts of Jason Bourne, (Matt Damon) a disaffected ex-CIA agent, to put his life as a government assassin behind him. This chapter of Bourne's life opens with a nightmarish dream that keeps intruding on the ex-agent's peaceful retirement in Goa, India, where he's determined to keep a low profile with his girlfriend Marie. But a shattered CIA operation in Berlin throws suspicion on Bourne and a partially successful attempt on his life forces him violently back "into the game", where his thoroughly-justified paranoia must contend with old adversaries and former allies. To say more about the plot would do great disservice to screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who picks up the threads of his own script in Identity and seamlessly integrates it into the story-line of this highly effective successor. Most of the principal characters in the first film reappear, (mercifully played by the same fine actors) and their performances match the quality of their earlier work.

Supremacy was directed by Paul Greenglass, the British director who two years ago gave audiences Blood Sunday, the pseudo-documentary which examined the slaughter of Northern Irish civilians in Derry by British troops in 1972. That film was one of 2002's best, and featured the same slashing editing style that provides so much kinetic energy here; the camera leaps from one location to another without pause, and inter-cuts shots of the same scene from so many angles and perspectives the audience doesn't so much witness the action as directly experience it. 

I'm not a fan of the Robert Ludlum book upon which these films were based, but Gilroy's script enables Matt Damon to create one of the most credible espionage figures yet to appear in a genre not noted for fully realized characters. Damon's Bourne isn't suave, sophisticated nor particularly handsome; he's something of a drone, working with a furrowed brow and taciturn personality to simply get through the grind his life's become one day at a time. There's no glamour here, just lots of second-guessing and deeply suppressed anxiety/guilt about the tasks at hand. Bourne's unraveling of the nightmare which forms the eerie beginning of Supremacy turns out to be a quest with importance for not only the action that follows, but for the moral responsibility the agent bears for it. Damon wisely underplays the part, making his heroics somehow both more surprising and honorable in the process. The actor's work isn't subtle in the sense of the delineation of his character, but rather its faithfulness to the notion that those doing this kind of work aren't likely to be as magnetic and charming as Sean Connery's James Bond. We're in the morally ambiguous world of John Le Carre's spies here, and Damon manages to conduct the requisite mayhem required of his character with a sort of resigned sadness which makes it all the more shocking when it flares into life.

Brian Cox and Julia Stiles reprise their roles with a careful attention to continuity, while the always-splendid Joan Allen, (Nixon, The Ice Storm, The Contender) brings an intense, coiled energy to Bourne's newest CIA nemesis, Pamela Landy. Perhaps no actress of her generation can convey a fire & ice personality as well as Allen, and it's employed perfectly here, keeping the audience constantly worried about whether she'll be as successful in manipulating Bourne as Chris Cooper's character was in the original. Most importantly, the intensity of her performance deflects the audience's attention at crucial points, permitting some clever plots twits to emerge with jolting force. 

Thrillers do well to supply the improbable without lapsing into the impossible; (Hitchcock was master-full in that regard--remember Cary Grant's response to the page in a hotel bar which triggers the action in North by Northwest?) which makes the car chase at the end of Supremacy the only false note in an otherwise fine effort. Director William Friedkin and Gene Hackman produced the definitive car chase in The French Connection, and despite innumerable subsequent attempts, no one has ever duplicated or exceeded its impact precisely because of its Manhattan-based plausibility. Greenglass and Damon try again here on the streets of Moscow, with more hardware and better sound effects, but the stunts are so wildly off the wall they descend to that level of caricature which so fatally marred I, Robot. A simpler chase and denouement would have been both more plausible and suitable to the crucial final scene that follows, in which Bourne finally faces the internal demons that have been pursuing him with every bit of the lethal potential possessed by his human adversaries.

That final carp aside, this is a wonderfully conceived and executed piece of high-octane action, delivered with a surprising acknowledgement of its audiences' intelligence and a willingness to present a truly flawed hero. 

The Verdict? Exciting in its own right, but 'tis best enjoyed after you've its predecessor.  


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