The Bourne Supremacy
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The Bourne Supremacy doesn't look like a conventional spy thriller. Hollywood has typically filmed these yarns in cool, steely colors, with elaborate but mechanical camera work. But The Bourne Supremacy gives us jittery, hyperactive visuals, fast cuts, a forever moving camera, and a pervading sweaty, grungy ambiance. Director Paul Greengrass and cinematographer Oliver Wood are the stars here, with significant contributions also coming from editors Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse.

Greengrass is the odd man out. His previous work has primarily been on British television, whereas Wood, Pearson, and Rouse all have previous experience in the spy thriller genre. However, Greengrass's feature film work is notable for Bloody Sunday (2002), which used a documentary-like approach to recreate the horrific outcome of a 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland. The Bourne Supremacy allows Greengrass to bring his skill for documentary-style visuals to a spy thriller and the results are arguably harder hitting than Hollywood's first effort in Robert Ludlum's Bourne saga, The Bourne Identity (2002), which was directed by Doug Liman. Liman was an odd choice to direct, considering his resume had primarily consisted of movies such as Swingers and Go, but he delivered an engaging (although anonymous) thriller.

This time around, producers Patrick Crowley and Frank Marshall have opted for a director with a completely different visual approach. (Liman is still on hand, but this time he has moved to an executive producer role.) And Greengrass's approach injects some needed variety into the spy thriller genre, which has long suffered from a certain sameness.

Of course, also on hand for this second go round is star Matt Damon. The role doesn't require a great deal of dialog, as the movie leaps from one action set piece to the next. Here, Damon is primarily limited to looking lost and confused but nonetheless determined. A tough combination. Considering his situation, Damon fares well, but his plight – which involves amnesia – never acquires the urgency of, for example, Guy Pearson's dilemma in Memento. Here, it isn't really Damon's fault. The storytelling never finds that new spin on the old amnesia plot device in order to grab our interest, to make us really feel like something new is being revealed before our eyes. The storytelling never allows us to really get inside Jason Bourne's skin and feel what it's like for him.

Most of the character development took place in Identity, especially in the scenes showing Bourne's developing relationship with Marie (Franka Potente of Run Lola Run), who drove him from Switzerland to Paris. Marie disappears from Supremacy early on, and with her out of the way, the movie focuses on chase scenes. And while these scenes are very well mounted there is an emptiness at the core of the movie. Without Marie, who allowed us a means of seeing inside Bourne (we liked him because he was capable of love and not just a robotic assassin), there is no resonance in the relationships, and without that resonance, the movie leaves us just as lost and confused as Jason Bourne, who is still battling to learn his own identity. Bourne remains an enigma that we can never really warm up to.

The edgy visuals certainly help pull us into the story and allow us to experience the nerves-on-edge world of espionage, but the visuals, as impressive as they might be, are only the dressing placed on what is essentially a very ordinary spy thriller plot. The visuals almost turn the mediocrity of this project into something very special. The film pulsates and spins. It's spontaneous. Its grimy surface is so palpable you'll considering taking a shower after you get home from the theater. But in the end, the visuals are at the service of a story that never really probes very deep, a story that remains a superficial thriller. And as such, when the movie comes to a stunning conclusion in a crowded highway tunnel, with cars spinning out of control and sparks flying, the movie fails to pack the kind of punch that it aspires to. During this chase scene, the movie conveys some of the same feel of William Friedkin's masterpiece chase scene from The French Connection (and anytime a director can evoke such a legendary scene he must be doing more than just a little right). We feel the collisions and close calls in a way that auto chase spectaculars such as The Fast and the Furious can't even begin to suggest. Here is a chase scene meant to make us feel uncomfortable. We're not supposed to be exalted or thrilled in any conventional sense. We're supposed to feel like someone has punched us in the stomach (and the arm and the chest and the side of the head and the etc.).

Paul Greengrass is a major talent in the making, and with The Bourne Supremacy we're seeing him take huge strides toward becoming one of Hollywood's elite directors, but he's let down by the conventional material here. (If given material that matches his talent, watch out.)

If you're planning on seeing The Bourne Supremacy, you should probably start by watching/re-watching The Bourne Identity. Because Supremacy relies so strongly on your prior experience with Jason Bourne – particularly with the character development that took place between Bourne and Marie as he struggled to learn his identity – these two parts of the Bourne saga feel like a continuation of the same film (although stylistically they're quite different).

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Universal Pictures
Movie Web site: The Bourne Supremacy



Photos: © 2004 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.