[With Jason Bourne set to open this weekend, we’ll be taking a look back at the original Bourne trilogy. These reviews will contain spoilers since the movies have been out for years. Click here for my review of The Bourne Identity.]
The identity of the Bourne franchise begins in the third act of The Bourne Identity. It’s when the character’s strengths and weaknesses begin to arise, and The Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass took note of where not only the character was going, but where America was going. The Bourne Identity came out in June 2002, and the sense of our country’s post-9/11 world was still hazy. By the time The Bourne Supremacy arrived on July 23, 2004, the reverberations were clear. We had been led into a war based on faulty intelligence that was cherry-picked so that we could attack a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Greengrass wasn’t obligated to insert the subtext into his spy thriller, but he was savvy enough to leave the political commentary simmering underneath an intense action flick that not only boosted Matt Damon‘s credibility as a kick-ass hero, but found a way to use hand-held cinematography to its full effect rather than a lazy shortcut.
Treadstone is dead, but its memory still haunts Jason Bourne (Damon). He’s living happily with Marie (Franka Potente) in India, but he still can’t piece together his past. The two have learned how to live on the run, but his past is inescapable. Half a world away in Berlin, CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) is running an operation to uncover a mole, but the op is sabotaged when a mysterious assassin, Kirill (Karl Urban), kills Landy’s operatives in the building, and leaves a fingerprint to frame Bourne. He then makes his way to India where he attempts to assassinate Bourne, but accidentally kills Marie instead. Thinking Bourne is dead, Kirill makes his way back to Europe, but a very-alive and very-pissed-off Bourne goes on the hunt thinking that Treadstone is responsible for Marie’s death.
There’s a lot of confusion at the outset of The Bourne Supremacy. Part is due to the multiple mysteries in the narrative. We want to understand Bourne’s fractured memory of a hit in Berlin, and we want to understand why Russian oil oligarch Yuri Gretkov (Karel Roden) wants to sabotage Landy’s operation and kill Bourne. In one of the film’s few weaknesses, a pat resolution reveals that Landy’s original operation ties into Bourne’s search to understand his past. However, rather than simply retread the Bourne-discovers-his-past yarn of Identity, Supremacy has the two investigations colliding towards each other. Landy’s investigation is charging at Bourne thinking he’s responsible for the hit on Landy’s people, and Bourne’s operation is charging at the CIA thinking that they’re responsible for Marie’s death. It turns out the man behind both plots is CIA Deputy Director Abbott (Brian Cox). He sees an opportunity to finish cleaning up Conklin’s (Chris Cooper) mess from the first movie, and a way to cover up his illicit deal with Yuri.
The movie is filled with people pursing bad intelligence, which has been created by an opportunistic government higher-up. That’s not to say that this is a nutso parable that’s implying the government caused 9/11. Rather, it’s about the government creating a false target for its own benefit. It’s about the power of lies, which was becoming exceedingly clear in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Abbott, the government surrogate, is a character who consistently sacrifices others for his own protection. He attempts to use Bourne as a fall guy since Bourne doesn’t register as a real person to Abbott. “They’d be chasing a ghost,” he reveals to Landy. Abbott also kills his hapless assistant Danny Zorn (Gabriel Mann), who stumbles upon his boss’ scheme. Everyone is expendable, and when Abbott is finally exposed, he chooses to commit suicide rather than face the consequences.
However, there’s a similarity between Abbott and Bourne in that neither can face their past. Abbott eventually takes the easy way out rather than own up to his crimes. Even before he blows his brains out, he claims he’s a patriot (this despite siphoning off $20 million from the government and then splitting it with Yuri). Bourne, on the other hand, is forced to finally confront what happened in Berlin on his first and off-the-books mission for Conklin. Bourne eventually remembers that he was sent to kill Russian politician Vladimir Neski (Jevgeni Sitochin), who was going to expose Yuri and Abbott’s scheme. In a way, Bourne is responsible for Landy’s troubles by killing the case’s first informant (Landy’s operation was meant to find a second informant).
Identity was going to let Bourne off the hook. Granted, the character came to terms with no longer being Conklin’s weapon, but screenwriter Tony Gilroy and Greengrass seized on the fact that the mission to kill Wombosi was Bourne’s last mission for Treadstone, not his first. Supremacy forces Bourne out of a happy, reconciliation-free ending. Bourne isn’t allowed to live in happy ignorance; he has to confront his past sins in order to move forward. The film has a powerful emotional climax when Bourne sits down with Neski’s daughter, Irina (Oksana Akinshina) and reveals that he was the one who killed her parents. It’s a small measure of solace to a young girl who had always believed her mother killed her father before killing herself. It’s a scene that shows the immeasurable value of truth.
These are heavy thematic issues, but the film never feels preachy or pedantic because Greengrass wraps The Bourne Supremacy in an intense action flick. The shaky-cam style has become a gigantic crutch among action directors (ironically, Bourne Identity director Doug Liman would attempt to use the style for the drama Fair Game; it ended up detracting wildly the movie), but Greengrass provides a master class in making it work. It’s not simply a matter of getting up close and personal with the action. It’s a delicate combination of understanding the distance between the camera and the action, careful editing to capture the best angle, keeping the pacing in time with the action rather than overshadowing it, and letting the score support the overall scene. Greengrass pulls it off brilliantly with the help of cinematographer Oliver Wood, editors Christopher Rouse and Rick Pearson, and composer John Powell.
It’s worth pointing out that both Wood and Powell worked on Identity, but Greengrass gives his cinematographer and composer more time to shine. Wood never lets the camera get so shaky that we’re simply watching a blur of punches and car crashes. Powell is a standout because he gets to put more of a stamp on the movie. Supremacy gives the franchise its own score and rhythm, and his music is a crucial piece of the action scenes. Whereas Liman was content to set his car chase to a Paul Oakenfold song, Powell compliments Greengrass’ unforgettable climactic car chase with a powerhouse track.
Greengrass plays the shaky-cam style not to imitate a sense of action, but so that the cinematography matches the brutality of the set pieces. Before you can stop and think about how Bourne found former Treadstone operative Jarda (Marton Csokas), the two are having a no-holds-barred fistfight, which highlights not only Bourne’s physical ability, but his resourcefulness. Up until this movie, 99% of the world’s population believed you couldn’t use a rolled-up magazine as a dangerous weapon.
The movie does a tremendous balancing act when it comes to understanding the limits of Bourne’s abilities. The movie gives Bourne scenes where he’s completely in control of the situation and gets to be a total badass (most notably, his carefully orchestrated kidnapping of Nikki (Julia Stiles)) but also when he’s frantically on the run. Greengrass understands that if Bourne is all-powerful, then there’s no danger, but if he’s constantly under attack, then we’ll seriously doubt his abilities. This amazing blend comes together in the movie’s final car chase where Bourne has serious maneuvering skills, but he’s frantically trying to get away from both the cops and Kirill. Bourne may be able to swerve in and around most cars, but when he gets broadsided by another vehicle, we feel it.
The Bourne Supermacy isn’t without a few problems. As I said earlier, the coincidence between Bourne’s flashbacks and Landy’s investigation is a major coincidence. The movie also glazes over how characters are able to find each other, like Bourne tracking down Jarda. But these register as minor blips on an action movie that goes above and beyond what audiences expect from a summer spy thriller. Greengrass created a film that captured the zeitgeist, but doesn’t feel dated because thrilling action scenes are evergreen. The movie also ends on an uplifting, and more honest note than Identity‘s pat conclusion. Bourne, having confessed his sins and provided the truth to Neski’s daughter, is in turn given a bit of truth about himself. Landy tells him his name is David Webb, and while it’s not much, it says that Jason Bourne wasn’t always Jason Bourne, and he doesn’t have to be Jason Bourne for the rest of his life. Thankfully, we got to see him be Bourne a little longer with the franchise’s best installment (to date), The Bourne Ultimatum.