THE BOURNE SUPREMACY
USA 2004 : Paul GREENGRASS : 108 mins|
The Bourne Identity and Bloody Sunday are two films with very little in common – apart from the fact that they were two of 2002′s most bafflingly over-rated releases. So hiring the director of the latter – Paul Greengrass – to direct this sequel to the former didn’t seem on paper like an especially promising move. Not least Bloody Sunday was restricted to about five Ulster streets, while the Bourne pictures range freely across the five continents.
But films aren’t made on paper: and on celluloid, where it counts, The Bourne Supremacy is an absolute treat – a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor. How come? Once again, screenwriter Tony Gilroy adapts a Robert Ludlum novel (he co-wrote Identity with W B Herron). Oliver Wood returns as cinematographer, as does composer John Powell. Front of camera, Matt Damon reprises his lead-role as amnesiac ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne – this time, his attempt at a ‘quiet life’ in Goa with girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) are shattered when he’s inadvertently embroiled in an intrigue involving the Russian Mafia and his former bosses. Who again include Brian Cox as the nefarious Ward Abbott, here joined by Joan Allen as ambitious Pamela Landy.
The Landy character marks a significant shift in the Bourne films’ political subtext. Identity director Liman was fond of pointing out that his film’s skeptical take on the CIA – personified by shady bigwig Conklin (Chris Cooper) – put a radical/Democratic twist on Ludlum’s fundamentally reactionary/Republican. Supremacy tilts the balance back towards the centre – or, rather, to a more ambiguous state of affairs.
This isn’t the only change: editors Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson replace Identity‘s Saar Klein, and delver some sterling sequences including a dazzling (admirably music-free) hand-to-hand fight-to-the-death in a compact-and-bijou apartment between Bourne and suavely enigmatic Jarda (Marton Csokas). Liman – whose LA-nightlife comedies Swingers and Go always made him an odd fit for Ludlum’s globetrotting airport-novel world – is now relegated to a backroom role as Executive Producer.
And Greengrass, to be blunt, is simply a much better choice for the material (though this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, given the fact that he co-wrote Peter Wright’s sensational expose Spycatcher.) The cast seem to sense this, too, with Damon growing nicely into his role and Julia Stiles making the most of her increased screen-time as sympathetic young agent Nicolette. Older hands Allen and Cox – while not exactly stretched by the material – add class and conviction: Cox’s delivery of the innocuous line “He’s on the tram!” is a mini-masterclass in itself.
Crucially, Greengrass proves equally comfortable with both action set-pieces and quieter moments, and knows how to integrate the two – knows when and how to follow the instruction that the characters are often heard to bark: “Cut to the chase!” Typically, the picture just starts - one simple title card, then onto the action: “This is not a drill, soldier” is an apt opening line.
Potente’s early exit has a poignant lyricism sufficiently potent to subtly shadow everything that follows. Even better is Greengrass’s handling of the three final scenes: (1) a full-tilt car-chase through a Moscow road tunnel involving Bourne, the Russian police and uber-hitman Kirill (Karl Urban); (2) a strikingly sensitive, downbeat and convincing two-hander between Bourne and the teenage girl (Lilja 4-Ever‘s hapless Oksana Akinshina) he orphaned in his previous existence; (3) a splendidly satisfying and wryly comic coda which, by ending the picture on precisely the right moment, sets us up nicely for The Bourne Ultimatum.
Ironically, The Bourne Supremacy being bafflingly under-rated in some quarters. Even Anthony Quinn, who delivered something close to a rave review in the (London) Independent - “paced so efficiently and staged so expertly that you may find yourself recommending it to friends.” – could only award three stars out of five, sniffily concluding that “it probably won’t appear on many Best of 2004 lists”. If this is the case – and it certainly shouldn’t be – it would say more about the snobbish trends in current film-criticism than The Bourne Supremacy itself. Much safer to list that ambitious/pretentious/soporific arthouse epic from Turkey/Korea/Iran, rather than recognise this superlative, thunderously entertaining picture simply because it’s from a supposedly ‘disreputable’ genre.
13th August, 2004
(seen 10th August : Odeon, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)
by Neil Young