I wasn’t a fan of “The Bourne Identity,” because I felt the movie made a lot of noise without really going anywhere. Jason Bourne got chased for the whole film, then there was a finale, then it was over. Never mind that action films seldom matter to the audience; this stuff barely even seemed to matter to the characters.
The sequel, “The Bourne Supremacy,” gets it right. Again written by Tony Gilroy (adapting the second of Robert Ludlum’s three Jason Bourne novels), but this time directed by Paul Greengrass, “Supremacy” offers the double agents and delicious espionage you expect from a CIA thriller, but without becoming bloated and ridiculous like 90 percent of action films made today. The cinema verite style that served Greengrass so well in his “Bloody Sunday” (about the violence that has plagued Ireland for three decades) is put to good use here, too, lending immediacy and believability to the action scenes.
I note a particularly wicked fist-, knife- and magazine-fight that is shot with hand-held cameras and without musical accompaniment that feels like it could be happening in the apartment next door. Compare this with most Hollywood action scenes, which feel like they could only happen in a movie.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), you may recall, was a CIA assassin who wound up with amnesia after the CIA ordered him killed. (Murdering its agents is the CIA’s way of getting out of paying retirement pensions.) Having dispatched those who wanted him gone, Bourne has fled to a remote corner of the world with his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente), hoping to live out his life quietly.
Ah, but it is not to be. In Berlin, a CIA operation goes wrong, agents are murdered, and Bourne’s fingerprints are put on the scene by the real perpetrators, thus framing him. CIA operative Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who was heading the disastrous mission, now has every reason to find the presumed-dead Bourne and make him dead for real. Like Michael Corleone in “Godfather Part III,” Bourne thought he was out, and they pull him back in: Framed for murder and on the run from Russians (yeah, the Russians are involved), he has to clear his name so he can go back into hiding.
There are some nice twists in the plot, not to mention fine, meaty performances by Joan Allen and Brian Cox, who plays a CIA bigwig who supervised Bourne’s old mission. The presence of those two heavy-hitters lends the film a little more credibility, as does its generally smart attitude toward action. Greengrass knows bigger is not necessarily better; interesting is better.
There is a brutal car chase through Moscow that comprises the film’s climax, and it is shot as well as any car chase I’ve ever seen. Some will complain about the shaky cameras, but for me, it makes it that much more intense. No longer do I feel safe, comfortably watching the mayhem as it’s slickly photographed and projected back to me. With this sequence, I feel like I’m in it, being pummeled and beaten along with the cars and their drivers.
The movie is fun stuff — not silly, not generally funny, but fun, you know? It’s serious about what it’s doing. It has enough confidence in the genre, and in its superlative material, to refrain from getting self-referential or goofy. It is what most action films aspire to be, except that most films chicken out and throw in a few more explosions just to be sure. “Bourne Supremacy” uses its explosions — and its rolled-up magazines, which can also be lethal — strategically and carefully.
B+ (1 hr., 48 min.; )