Stanley Kauffmann, the curmudgeonly film critic of The New Republic who has been reviewing movies seemingly since the Boer War, wrote a piece a few years ago called "Doing It Well" in which he praised the craft found in the better Hollywood assembly-line movies, the ones cursed by neither pretension to artiness nor surrender to formula. Kauffmann cited as an example Tony Scott's "Spy Game," starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
Three such films come to mind this summer, thrillers competing for Hollywood gold: Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," Michael Mann's "Collateral," and Paul Greengrass's "The Bourne Supremacy."
Any bookie over room-temperature IQ would be liking the first two in this race. Consider their respective star power -- Denzell Washington and Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. The third manages Matt Damon, a dim Hollywood figure who lives on no one's A list. The first two are shaped by name directors with huge hits under their belts, the third by a no-name Brit who made the low-budget "Bloody Sunday" a couple of years ago that lost money.
And yet it is "The Bourne Supremacy" that owns the field. It flew from the gate late last month, opening its first weekend at $53 million, compared to $20 million for "Manchurian" and $24 million for "Collateral" early this month. As of this week, it has grossed more than $150 million, against $54 million and $70 million respectively. "Collateral" will do OK, "Manchurian" won't. The point is, "Supremacy" rules. What's going on here?
What's going on is some of the strongest word of mouth about a movie in ages. Yes, the reviews are fine and the ad campaign is solid, but that does not explain $150 million five weeks out. There is no merchandising strategy as with "Spider-Man 2" to sell "Bourne Supremacy" cups at the likes of
Unlike "The Manchurian Candidate," the film harbors zero pretension. That Demme had the hubris to remake the classic in the first place gave many people pause. Despite some shrewd retooling of the story and characters, he still leaves audiences wondering why he messed with a good thing. Definitely bad juju.
No such arrogance exists with "Supremacy." No such arrogance can exist with "Supremacy," second in what is shaping up to be a franchise with great legs, because it was made from one of the low beach books written by Robert Ludlum about Jason Bourne, a professional assassin who has lost his memory. (The chattering class in places like 02138 roundly sneered at these offerings while Ludlum laughed his way to the bank.) The Bournes, then, have no pedigree.
More important, "Supremacy" is an awfully well made movie. (So is "Collateral.") Director Greengrass and his editors, Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse, never take their hands off the throttle. The pace is fast to the point of exhaustion and heightened by a score that affords us no rest.
And it is smart. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy, who also wrote the successful predecessor, "The Bourne Identity" -- the top US movie rental of 2003 at $79 million -- asks the right questions. The plot is gripping and violent to its bloody end, full of CIA double cross and large dollops of international intrigue.
The movie gives us one of the best car chases in recent film history. The fights are exceptional. The best, between Bourne and another assassin in Munich, is silent and crisp, brutal and long. Blissfully, there is no sex in this film. Nor humor. There's no time for either.
"Supremacy," like its predecessor, always provides a superior sense of place. It is as rare as it is satisfying these days to see a movie shot on location abroad. The first unfolded in Marseilles and Zurich, then Paris and rural France. This one moves from Goa, India, to Berlin, Munich, and Moscow. These places confirm the film's integrity and throw in some gorgeous eye candy to boot.
Finally, there is Damon, a quiet revelation. It is now obvious that the two Bourne films have jump-started his career, and for good reason. He proves he can carry the right movie. (Both should be seen, and in sequence.)
In this one, he is uncommonly still much of the time. That's why we can't take our eyes off him. He hardly talks. His face is opaque, masking emotions and, more important, live-or-die decisions forced upon him that must be made in an instant. Again and again, we see him making the right ones under duress and then executing them deftly. Like all pros, Bourne wastes no excess effort.
What happened this summer is that Greengrass beat Mann and Demme at their own game. "The Bourne Supremacy" is sleek and fast and very good. But, at the end of the day, it is Damon as Bourne who brings it home first and makes us embrace the inevitability of another installment.
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com.