One thing’s for certain…Russian taxicabs can sure take a beating. Or at least that’s the impression you get from The Bourne Supremacy’s most heart-stopping action sequence.
Lest you doubt the veracity of that description, let me say, as a female critic, I do not throw the adjective “heart-stopping” around lightly. There are few things I find more irritating than the drawn-out, predictable chase scenes that pass for action these days. In fact, I usually plead with my husband to wait until the latest “thrill-a-minute” blockbuster comes to DVD, so that at least I can make a snack while the hero is endlessly leaping from European sports cars to European bullet trains.
So I’m happy to report that The Bourne Supremacy suffers from none of the tragically hip trappings that usually attend intrigue cinema. In one sense the film preserves all the traditional elements that make spy thrillers compelling, but it gives them a gritty new reality, dragging them into the muddy snow of Moscow, icing them up, and making us feel the shiver. Not a Computer Generated Image in sight, Supremacy offers the audience more than mere spectacle. It offers, amidst the requisite panoramas of stunning international locations swarming with double agents and clandestine alliances, a reminder that intelligence work is deadly serious business.
We catch up with Jason Bourne where we left him two years ago at the end of the groundbreaking sleeper hit Bourne Identity. He is still with keeping house (or shack as the case may be) with the lovely Marie (Franka Potente), hiding out on a beach in India, and trying in vain to remember who he is and why so many people want to kill him. As increasingly lurid flashes from the past continue to tax his sanity, Bourne’s former life collides with his present and he finds himself framed for a corrupt cross-agency operation that leaves two men dead.
Only the second film in this spy series, Supremacy reaffirms the franchise as a remarkable departure from today’s typical spy fare and Damon as a remarkable departure from today’s typical super-agent. Though they are reportedly best friends, when it comes to acting, Damon may very well be the “anti-Ben.” His performance as Jason Bourne is as taut and shrewd as Affleck’s Jack Ryan is unruly and grandstanding. Damon doesn’t need cheap, “I’m-so-dashing-couldn’t-you-just-die” swagger to fill up two hours of screen time, he has talent to do that.
At times startling in his agility, Damon’s physical precision with the role is matched only by the intelligent restraint he applies to the character’s emotions. He lends steel to lines lesser actors would have provided only flash. When a former co-assassin comes home to find Jason Bourne in his kitchen, gun in hand, he sighs “They told me you’d lost your memory.” Bourne replies while cocking the trigger, “Yeah, but you still should’ve moved.”
New director Paul Greengrass (Doug Liman stays on as executive director) captures the kinetic energy of the first Bourne film and intensifies it with his breakneck handheld style. His erratic editing acts as a nice stylistic foil to Damon’s physical discipline, allowing the audience to feel as disoriented and tense as Bourne is. It’s a bold and effective technique, but if you want to avoid motion sickness, best not sit to close to the screen.
Yet while the acting and direction are top notch, what really elevates this film beyond mere masculine fantasy is that it offers war-weary Americans a spy who understands the spiritual consequence of taking life. The assassinations Bourne carries out are not glamorous; they’re raw and ugly and wreak havoc on his psyche, even when he knows they’re necessary to ensure his safety and that of those he loves.
Unlike James Bond or Ethan Hunt, or even Vin Diesel’s laughable Triple X, Jason Bourne never experiences (nor allows the audience to vicariously experience) any satisfaction from killing an adversary. Instead, we get the feeling he is soul-sickened by what he has had to resort to in order to save his life.
Despite its grave themes (or perhaps because or them), The Bourne Supremacy is still supremely thrilling. Rarely does it fail to stimulate our eyes even as it speaks to our hearts. He may be the youngest member of the international spy set, but Jason Bourne is clearly the most grown-up.
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.