Bourne to run
Matt Damon returns as an amnesiac ex-CIA killer in the breathtakingly breakneck 'Bourne Supremacy'
The British filmmaker Paul Greengrass likes to stick you right in the middle of it. If you saw 2002's "Bloody Sunday," his brilliantly scarifying cinematic re-creation of the 1972 Londonderry massacre, you know what the man can do with a hand-held camera, a skilled editor, and a handful of characters, each with his or her own agenda and idiosyncrasies.
With "The Bourne Supremacy," Greengrass has gone Hollywood. Or, rather, Hollywood has come to him. Actually, it's a bit of a standoff. The film, starring
Matt Damon as the amnesiac ex-CIA killer Jason Bourne, is a terse, tight, impressively smart package, much like its predecessor, Doug Liman's 2002 "The Bourne Identity." Both movies try to reinvent that logy old white elephant, the Cold War spy thriller, for a new century of global anxiety, and both succeed by ripping up the playbook -- which includes almost all of novelist Robert Ludlum's original story line -- and plunging the viewer into a mare's-nest of international intrigue. The difference is that Greengrass's knack for total immersion leaves a viewer hanging on throughout "Supremacy," fighting disorientation and enjoyably
charged up by the chase-scene huggermugger. For once, those datelines in the corner of the screen -- "Berlin, Germany," "Goa, India," "Naples, Italy," ticka-ticka-ticka -- come in handy, since they're among the few handholds the movie provides. (I also recommend renting the first film to those who haven't seen it.) The hero of "Supremacy" is in a similar fix: People want him dead and he has no idea why. It might help if Bourne knew who he was, but the memory loss with which he struggled in "Identity" continues to plague him. He realizes he was a not-so-nice boy for a black-ops wing of the CIA called the Treadstone Project, and the shards of a recurrent dream send him jogging down the beach in India, where he's hiding out with girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) in the opening scenes. Turns out he'll need the exercise, since someone is assassinating agents and leaving Bourne's fingerprints as evidence.
There are a number of parties working at cross-purposes here: a slimy Russian oil entrepeneur (Karel Roden); his personal assassin (Karl Urban of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Riddick," sporting his third radically different haircut in as many movies); a highly placed CIA agent named Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) who's convinced that Bourne is a rogue killing machine; Brian Cox as a phlegmatic CIA hatchet man with multiple axes to grind; Julia Stiles, still underutilized as a low-level agency cog.
The connective tissue -- the man they all want to get their hands on -- is played by Damon without an ounce of movie-star fat. The comparison's getting old but it's still worth raising: Where Ben Affleck might showboat his way through this kind of role, his old homeboy underplays to greater effect, furrowing his brow, boring straight ahead, and trying to cut a straight swath through all the manipulations. Damon doesn't ask to be watched and that's why we watch him, and the payoff is a quiet powerhouse of a scene in which, in front of one of the movie's very few innocents, Bourne finally lets his emotions get the better of him.
This is after a 10th-inning demolition-derby car chase through rush-hour Moscow, one of several sequences in which Greengrass uses his you-are-there skills to build a faster, gnarlier action movie. These scenes -- there's a corker through the streets of Berlin and a fight in which Bourne, armed only with a rolled-up magazine, goes up against a knife-wielding assailant -- are breathtaking but exhausting, and by the end you're ready to cry uncle.
Still, the way Greengrass lets you feel the violence is impressive. Most movie heroes punch through armies without scraping their knuckles, but Bourne's a believable wreck by midpoint, even as he's driving CIA spooks to distraction by calling them on their cellphones from nearby rooftops.
It's the past that weighs most heavily on him, though. Tony Gilroy's script is serviceably pungent ("You're standing in a puddle of [expletive], and you don't have the shoes for it," one character warns Landy), but it has a ball with the dour pop premise driving this series. Most of us have trouble dealing with the mistakes we know we've made. Jason Bourne wants to atone for sins he can't even remember.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.