If there’s any doubt about the effect of cutting-edge video and documentary techniques on ho-hum movie material, there’s a virtuoso demonstration in The Bourne Supremacy (Universal), the superior sequel to the 2002 hit The Bourne Identity. The first film was fast, adroit, and something more. Viewed six months after 9/11, the adaptation of a 1980 Robert Ludlum potboiler was weirdly comforting: Its universe of pasty old white guys playing Cold War chess with sundry operatives in Eastern Europe stirred feelings of tender nostalgia (at least for us non-Eastern Europeans).
The sequel is simply a tour-de-force of thriller filmmaking. The English director, Paul Greengrass, made the amazing 2002 movie Bloody Sunday—I almost wrote “the amazing documentary,” because that film (about the infamous Irish civil rights march of 1972 that ended in a massacre) was shot like a piece of combat photography. You weren’t watching a re-creation, you were right there in the middle of the melee, helpless and sickened. Greengrass brings the same vérité charge to this old-fashioned, patently fictional spy picture. He puts you on the street with the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (again Matt Damon), scanning a crowd that streaks by so fast that your eyes don’t quite focus: You only half-catch the guy with the rifle taking aim before the bullet explodes and the world is up-ended. The film has hand-to-hand battles so close and blurry and tumultuous that they summon up your primitive fight-or-flight instincts. It’s as if the filmmaker (and the camera operator) are thinking on their feet alongside the hero, moving instinctively to keep up with their subjects for fear that said subjects will fly out of the frame. And the audience is just as wired-in: I could barely look down at my popcorn.
Better yet, I didn’t have time to mull over the absurdities of the plot. When The Bourne Supremacy opens, Jason is living furtively in India, still with Marie (Franka Potente), the only constant in his addled life. The first Bourne film began with its protagonist floating off the coast of Marseilles with two bullets in his back and the number of a Zurich safe-deposit box in some sort of laser body-implant. He had no idea who he was, but he had somehow retained his lightning martial-arts reflexes, his fluency in a handful of languages, and the instincts of a superspy assassin. Two years and many corpses later, he’s further along the memory road, but there are pieces missing—especially of a mission (he thinks in Berlin) that left two people dead. Why does it gnaw at him so? Perhaps for the same reason that someone has framed him for the murder of a couple of spies involved in a top-secret dossier transaction and is now trying to blow him away for good.
The script, again by Tony Gilroy, is full of pungent spyspeak and clever spy-versus-spy one-upmanship, but it’s largely an excuse to keep Bourne (and the camera) in whirling motion. After he takes his anguished leave of Marie, Bourne speeds through the Alps toward Berlin, where CIA agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) leads a team in pursuit of the killer of her operatives. Who is on whose tail? Landy’s after Bourne, but it’s Bourne who has Landy and her agents under surveillance. Nobody knows what’s really going on, but somehow everybody (Bourne, Landy, CIA bigwigs, whole police forces, motley assassins) converges at regular intervals for bravura cliffhangers. “How does he do that?” we think as Bourne disarms an agent with moves so fast you barely register them, leaps off a fire escape, darts in and out of cars, hurtles over a railing onto a barge, then scampers up the side of a bridge and behind the 20 police cars that are chasing him. What we don’t think is: “He can do that because he’s a digitized little guy inside a computer simulation.” How refreshing to see action that’s the real deal!
The Bourne Supremacy improves on its predecessor by telling two stories. It’s not just Bourne running away from police and assassins and people in headquarters screaming, “Get Bourne!”—although there is a lot of that, come to think of it. It’s also Joan Allen’s Landry trying to ferret out the reason that so many of her higher-ups (especially Brian Cox, returning as shifty CIA honcho Ward Abbott) want to kill Bourne before he can stagger in from the cold. Is she a good guy or a bad guy? Poor Bourne doesn’t know what to make of it all, but Damon manages to play befuddlement without the slightest loss of virility. Impassive as he is, you can always see the wheels turning in his head; he turns the gap between his plodding demeanor and those automatic quicksilver reflexes into something witty and moving. Even existential: Bourne doesn’t have much of a self, but he acts. The Bourne Supremacy doesn’t have much of a self, either, but that marvelous action is identity enough.