The Bourne Supremacy

on July 23, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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Throughout "The Bourne Supremacy," as well as its 2002 predecessor "The Bourne Identity," Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) reads maps. Bourne is on the run, and, whether it's the train schedule that he scans while glancing at his watch or the diagram of a city's streets that he snags as he marches through a drugstore, he is constantly formulating an escape plan. It's a detail that sets the franchise apart from its rivals in the genre. A lesser film would expect moviegoers to believe that its protagonist would automatically know his way around an alien city--an especially questionable supposition when he's suffering from a bout of amnesia. On the contrary, "The Bourne Supremacy" is a smart thriller for a smart audience.

It's been two years since Bourne's bullet-riddled body was pulled from the Mediterranean Sea. Although he emerged with no memory of who he was or what he did for a living, he soon discovered his skills and training as an assassin. Deeply disturbed by his apparent past, Bourne abandoned the government project and went into hiding with his new girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente), threatening, "If I even feel somebody behind me, there is no measure to how fast I will bring this fight to your doorstep."

They should have taken him seriously. Despite an itinerant lifestyle that finds them on the steamy beach of Goa, India, the arrival of a contract killer forces Bourne out of hiding and back onto the grid. While he tries to figure out what his government wants with him, both he and his former employer are manipulated by an unknown foe with ties to Bourne's clandestine past. (Even more so than its predecessor, "Supremacy" bears little resemblance to the novel on which it's based, which has to do with a plot to take over Hong Kong and a Bourne impersonator.)

The plot's confusing, perhaps too much so, needing at least a second viewing to connect all the dots. But what's genius about the "Bourne" movies is that its emotional core is as complex as its narrative. Bourne is driven here by more than a mystery, even more than revenge. Rather, he seeks atonement for his sins, a quality that renders the character riveting. Battling the training that has overridden his instinct, he struggles to turn his back on his past, to be a different person than he was, but circumstances out of his control and even his own body repeatedly force him to be the person he no longer wants to be.

A large part of the success of the role--in addition to screenwriter Tony Gilroy's adaptation to Robert Ludlum's Cold War character to the present-day sociopolitical climate--is in the casting, some say against type, of Damon. Damon has oozed good will since his breakthrough role in 1997. He's instantly likable--a quality essential in convincing moviegoers to root for a serial killer. Yet Damon--whose filmography since "Good Will Hunting" is a respectable, if quirky, mixed bag of high-profile prestige pictures, goofy comedies and clever cameos--defies his youthful good looks with a taut intensity.

As Bourne he's alternately methodical, like a machine in military mode, explosive and brooding--there's little of "Identity's" breezy romantic humor this time around--but always crackling with energy like a gimcrack plasma globe. Although the novelty of Bourne discovering his lethal skills for the first time has faded, a character detail subtly conveyed by the actor in the first film, Damon's performance remains delicately textured--the ripple on a placid ocean that carries within it the massive power beneath. Underscoring this installment's more sinister tone, cinematographer Oliver Wood casts Bourne's face in shadow at his darkest moments.

Meanwhile, Paul Greengrass, taking over directing duties from Doug Liman, brings the gritty realism that he exhibited in his documentary-esque "Bloody Sunday." Like in that film, the camera here is a witness to the events as they unfold rather than a narrator pointing its lens at the action, following Bourne without ever getting ahead of him. On location in gorgeously photographed India, Berlin and Moscow, Greengrass' camerawork is largely handheld, even in the film's intimate moments, lending it an edgy undercurrent throughout.

And, although the tight frame and quick cuts can get dizzying during the hand-to-hand combat sequences, "Supremacy," along with contemporaries "Ronin" and "The Matrix Reloaded," here redefines the car chase. More akin to the ram-and-slam action at a monster truck rally than the deft evasion on a closed-road obstacle course, "Supremacy" comprises shots rarely seen before: The camera's in the front seat as it films an oncoming vehicle crashing into the side of the car, and that's Matt Damon right there in the frame as it unfolds onscreen. Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Karl Urban, Gabriel Mann and Joan Allen. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Tony Gilroy. Produced by Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley and Paul L. Sandberg. A Universal release. Thriller. Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action and for brief language. Running time: 108 min

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