Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

After the excellent 'Bourne Identity' introduced lethal assassin Jason Bourne and his amnesia ridden predicament to audiences and received critical acclaim and financial success, a follow up was inevitable. Taking over the reins from Doug Liman for the second outing (and eventually the third) was director Paul Greengrass, who managed to create a film that met expectations by improving on the first one while taking the storyline in an interesting new direction.

'The Bourne Supremacy' begins with a CIA operation to gather evidence on a traitor in the agency being foiled by an unknown individual, who we later learn is a mercenary assassin named Kiril (Karl Urban). A fingerprint planted on the scene points to the culprit being Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), an agent from the Treadstone project who disappeared two years earlier. Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), the agent in charge of the botched operation, sets out to find Bourne and is assigned to work with former Treadstone overseer Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) on the case.

Meanwhile, Bourne and his partner Marie (Franka Potente) are now living in Goa, where he continues to try and piece together his past. Kiril has tracked them down and arrives in Goa to kill Bourne, but fails. An incensed Bourne, believing Kiril to be from Treadstone, sets out to find out why they came after him and to exact revenge. His journey leads him to Berlin, where Landy and her team are set up; it's also where Bourne made his first kill, a hazy memory that has started to haunt his dreams and his conscience. What follows is a tense series of encounters between Bourne , the CIA, and law enforcement agencies as he gathers information and learns more about his past. All of which involves thrilling chases and fights that lead up to a surprising and unconventional conclusion.

The one aspect that I missed from the first film is Franka Potente's Marie. Her relationship with Bourne added a lot of warmth and humour to the first outing, and it is missed here as she only appears briefly at the start of the film. The plus side is that Bourne is now free to unleash his full potential without having to worry about keeping someone else safe - it's not a run away movie, it's one where the protagonist brings the fight to his adversaries, and as such is a different film from its predecessor. 'Supermacy' is a lean film, with every scene being relevant to the plot or to Bourne's character. I say Bourne's character because the stories are truly about him, and he is the only character that has any real depth or development. That's not a criticism, because the journey his character goes through in this, where he's forced to confront his past and decide who he wants to be, is a substantial and well presented one, and one that transcends the standard conventions of the genre. There's a streak of morality in Bourne that makes him more than just a machine, as his choices in the film ably demonstrate.

The mystery thriller aspects of the plot are all fairly tight as well, although in some respects parts of it involve the characters playing catchup with the audience as they become aware of things we're already privy to. It's well constructed and the various threads all tie in together nicely, but I think the ostensible plot of the film actually plays second fiddle to Bourne's personal journey, and the film is all the better for it.

As with the first film, the general approach is very much grounded in reality, with everything from the fights and chases to the technology on display being realistic and only occasionally stretching credulity. It's just fantastic to watch Bourne use pen and paper and old fashioned techniques like tailing someone and getting lost in a crowd, as opposed to the phony 'hacking' and satellite tracking employed by his contemporaries. It's a genuine game of wits, and neither side gets to cheat - they all operate within the type of limitations we see in reality.

Paul Greengrass brings his unique visual style to the film by making it much grittier and at times almost documentary like with a lot of shaky camera work. Some have found it to be distracting, and while I agree that it is perhaps a little overused I think it lends the whole film an air of verisimilitude. The sequel has less sheen than the first film, which itself had very little sheen to begin with! Even the colour palette here is more subdued and murky. The action scenes are once again brutal, but this time are far more chaotic and have a very capricious feel to them. These sequences are well integrated into the story and never really feel like set pieces, and the tension levels are always high because of how organic and uncontrived they are. All in all, Greengrass built upon and improved what was great about the first film.

Matt Damon's performance here is, taken at face value, more mechanical than in 'Identity'. There he started off as a man lost in the wilderness discovering what he was, and it was easy to empathize with him. Here he has embraced his abilities with a steely resolve and is hell bent on letting the agency know that he's not to be messed with. In some respects, Bourne is the guy who's calling the shots and everyone else is struggling to keep up. The character is kept real because he is vulnerable, taking physical punishment and evading captors by the narrowest of margins. While Damon appears clinical, he never seems so superhuman that nothing could stop him, and this is the key that separates Bourne from characters like the new John McClane in Die Hard 4.0. The sordid aspects of his past and the way they affect him, and the weight of the choices he's confronted with throughout the story are perfectly conveyed by Damon, and they are brought to the fore in the excellent final scene in Russia.

There are some strong performances from the supporting cast as well. There's once again a cool and tacit villain in the form of Urban's Kiril, who like Clive Owen's Professor in the first film, embodies the same frightening skills as Bourne without any of the morality. Brian Cox is back in the role of Abbott, and this time is more in command and is far more loathsome. The best supporting performance is Joan Allen's as Landy, the tenacious and intelligent agent who is relentless in her pursuit of the truth. The character could easily have been an annoying thorn in Bourne's side, but the performance makes the character's behaviour and motivations understandable, and you always feel like she genuinely wants to get to the bottom of things and would be a great ally for Bourne if she wasn't busy tracking him down. Julia Stiles also returns as former Treadstone operative Nicky and does a reasonable job in a very minor role.

'The Bourne Supremacy' is the rare sequel that does just about everything right. It takes the trappings that worked in the first part and ramps them up while expounding on the protagonist and his personal story and taking them into brand new territory. It builds on the existing themes of morality, choice, and the cold, bureaucratic, and immoral nature of intelligence / defense agencies (this one isn't really overt, but I think it's definitely in there). Like its predecessor, 'Supremacy' is an action thriller with substance, one that delivers on all fronts. Obviously I think it's worth seeing.

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