Jason Bourne keeps his edge in “The Bourne Supremacy,” a nonstop chase that serves its dish of post-Cold War spy games very cold but with a pungent trace of melancholy. After two bruising outings as Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac CIA assassin, it may well be that Bourne will stand as Matt Damon’s signature role, so completely does he own it. The action is confusing at first and the hyperventilated editing style at times goes beyond the pale, so pic ultimately emerges as an erratic but not unworthy sequel to its gritty, genre-invigorating predecessor. “The Bourne Identity” exceeded expectations by grossing $213 million theatrically ($121.7 domestically, $92.2 foreign) worldwide in 2002 and becoming Universal’s top DVD/video title last year, so a substantial fan base exists to produce muscular numbers for this pile-driving follow-up.
Trotting the globe even more than the original, “Supremacy” sees the return not only of several principal actors but of numerous key behind-the-scenes hands, including scripter Tony Gilroy, cinematographer Oliver Wood and composer John Powell. Major newcomer, replacing Doug Liman as director, is Paul Greengrass, whose 2002 look at a tragic day in Northern Ireland, “Bloody Sunday,” was lensed in arresting docu-drama style.
Format remains very much the same, with Bourne, first seen decompressing on the beach at Goa, India, with his “Identity” companion Marie (Franka Potente), quickly going on the run to elude pursuers intent on putting him permanently out of business. As before, he is struggling to piece together clues to recapture lost memory.
Right off the bat, a tough assassin (Karl Urban) sent by a Russian oil tycoon chases Bourne and Marie through Goa’s teeming streets, with calamitous results that for a while take the wind out of the picture’s sails when it’s barely left port. At the same time, the CIA is coping with the loss of two men on a blown job in Berlin. Hard-ass agency task force chief Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) literally sees Bourne’s fingerprints on the treachery and, forcing the soon-to-retire senior operative Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) to help her, resolves to reel in the trouble-making rogue agent, whose shadowy kill squad was shuttered two years back with the death of its chief (Chris Cooper, seen and heard very briefly in flashbacks).
His stealthy anticipatory skills and deadly fighting techniques still in peak condition, Bourne quietly makes his way to Naples, where he fakes out guards and interrogators who momentarily nab him, then proceeds to Munich, where he engages in ferocious hand-to-hand combat with a former colleague (Marton Csokas, making a strong impression in a short time). Shot within the tight confines of an apartment, scene packs about as much visceral punch as is possible under PG-13 restraints, and yet is shot in a way indicative of Greengrass’ handling of all the set-pieces; action is conveyed in such a piecemeal, rapid-cut manner that, even more than was the case with Liman’s approach, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on.
One has to imagine that the lack of clarity, continuity and coherence in this furiously fought sequence is intentional, as its impact verges on the impressionistic. For all its visual bedazzlement, however, there are equal aspects of breathless bluster, insistent showiness and defiant disorientation that make the big action scenes, most notably a climactic chase through Moscow, cut both ways.
For a long while, the film operates efficiently but almost mechanically on the surface narrative level. But, as can and should happen with good spy stories, the deep background and dark mysteries of the characters begin seeping to the fore, and Bourne’s powerfully equivocal nature once again exerts its hold. Based on his actions alone, Bourne is a nasty piece of work, hardly a protagonist worthy of one’s emotional interest; but once he’s seen clearly enough for what he is, a pawn in a deadly game whose resourcefulness in staying alive is impressive, the story becomes more engaging.
The efforts of assorted hit men notwithstanding, Bourne’s main adversary this time is Landy, a principled, relentless woman who knows less than she should about Bourne and Abbott, and learns the hard way. Once Bourne arrives in Berlin, he outfoxes the vigilant Landy at every turn, as when he briefly detains one of her team, Nicky (Julia Stiles), a contact at the agency’s Paris office in “Identity.”
After concluding unfinished business with Abbott, Bourne realizes his real mission awaits in Moscow. The Russian capital has never before been so extensively used in an American production, nor probably by such a high-turbo action film of any origin, so there is an automatic freshness to the picture’s final tumultuous stretch provided by the wintry city itself. Episode is capped by an intimate scene that injects the film with an unexpected shot of emotion and regret, followed by a teasing coda that could easily provide the jumping-off point for a third “Bourne” installment.
Once again, Damon scores in the title role by never courting audience sympathy and playing his all-American good looks against the hard-shell brutality of the character. Speaking German and Russian when need be with ease, Damon uses his rugged physicality without hanging any movie star bravado or posing on it, and easily holds the screen in the many scenes when he’s the only actor in sight.
As before, supporting cast is aces. Allen, the main newcomer, is constrained at first from seeming like anything more than a single-minded functionary who lives to issue demanding orders. As the film begins to breath a bit, so does her character, and Allen, with nothing tangible to work with, manages to subtly suggest the existence of a real woman beneath all the officious professionalism.
Cox, Potente, Stiles and Gabriel Mann continue their flavorsome, if in some cases abbreviated, performances from the first film, and Urban is memorable as the stalking gunman with little to say.
Much of the film’s pleasure stems from its many atmospheric locations, some of which — particularly Berlin and Moscow — carry extensive Cold War resonance. When has a film ever before been able to document what a real train journey from Berlin to Moscow actually looks like, right down to pulling into the Moscow station and looking for a taxi?
Wood’s camerawork will be too jittery for some, but reeks of the specific atmospheres of the settings. As before, Powell’s techno-dominated score provides a throbbing, propulsive pulse.