Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has come a long way since he was fished out of the ocean with a pair of bullet holes in his body and even bigger holes in his memory. His past is still a blank, mostly, but he’s finally fully in command of his devastating training and skills as a CIA black-ops agent. These days, when he kicks into high gear, it’s by design, not reflex.
Bourne’s first outing, the successful The Bourne Identity, was a taut, low-key thriller about a man with no past coming to grips with his remarkable abilities and with the unknown deadly past that kept catching up with him. In the tradition of the best sequels, The Bourne Supremacy extends the first film’s trajectory while telling a more complex, darker story. There’s more plot and more action, and if the first film’s leavening human contact and flashes of low-key humor are virtually gone, Bourne’s humanity, and the moral and tragic dimensions of his situation, are ultimately brought into sharper focus.
The film picks up a couple of years after the end of the original, with Bourne and his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) in hiding on the coast of India. Bourne still struggles with his largely forgotten past, and lives in a constant state of heightened alertness, always anticipating the day when Treadstone, the rogue CIA initiative of which he had been a part, may try to kill him again.
What Bourne doesn’t know is that Treadstone was quietly shut down at the end of the last film, though its unprincipled architect, Ward Abbott (Brian Cox, X2), is still with the CIA, along with a psych specialist (Julia Stiles) who worked with Bourne and another agent played by Gabriel Mann.
Abbott would love to clean up the remaining loose ends from his involvement in Treadstone. Eventually, the day Bourne has been watching for comes, and it’s not long before he discovers that not only is he a living target again, he’s also being pursued by a CIA agent named Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) for a hit on a CIA op that he had nothing to do with.
How Bourne responds to the story’s twists and turns is likely to keep the viewer as much on his toes as Bourne himself. Bourne makes far more compelling viewing than a mere fantasy action hero like James Bond, not only because his actions are more grounded in reality, but also because Bond only does things you could never do, but Bourne does things you could never even think of. Bond is merely better than you are, but Bourne is smarter than you are, at least about what he does.
Another way of putting it is that any reasonably competent writer could craft a James Bond story, but not everyone could write a Jason Bourne story, because most of us wouldn’t know how. Watching Bond is at best vicarious thrill-seeking, but watching Bourne feels almost like an education in spycraft, or at least an insider behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of espionage.
Director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday), following in the footsteps of Bourne Identity director Doug Liman, brings the same acute sense of location and the same bracingly messy, unscripted realism to the proceedings. With a few exceptions, circumstances don’t feel contrived either for the hero’s sake or to challenge him; there’s a restrained, almost random quality to Bourne’s world that feels immediate and real.
This extends to the action scenes, including an extended combat sequence with another assassin and a harrowing car chase in the last act. These sequences have a desperate, improvisational feel; they don’t feel choreographed or exaggerated, and the car chase in particular outdoes the first film’s chase scene in making the viewer feel that this is what a high-speed car chase in the real world would actually be like.
In the first film, Bourne’s relationship with Marie helped to anchor the still-adjusting Bourne to reality, giving him someone to talk to and eventually to care about. Their relationship is a much smaller part of The Bourne Supremacy, yet ultimately its humanizing effect on Bourne is perhaps greater than in the first film. In the end, we see that Bourne’s love for Marie has gone beyond need or stress-based attachment, that it has had a lasting effect on him and how he approaches the world.
Watching The Bourne Identity, I was intrigued by the hero’s dilemma. With The Bourne Supremacy, I find myself caring both about the hero himself and about the story. The Bourne Supremacy is one of the best thrillers in a long time.
With The Bourne Ultimatum the eponymous hero has accomplished something rare indeed: Jason Bourne has gone the distance for three straight films. With The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum seals the achievement of a rare action franchise for thinking adults, combining gripping entertainment with an undercurrent of moral seriousness.
Like the memory-impaired antihero of Memento, the protagonist of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (and a trilogy of Robert Ludlum novels before that) has no choice but to trust himself even though he can’t be sure he’s a trustworthy individual. Perhaps his honorable aspirations themselves are a good sign. Certainly the amazing abilities and instincts that suddenly surface when needed are clues to who and what he is. Jason may not know much, but he’s pretty sure he’s something out of the ordinary.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.