In a summer drenched in CGI-effect extravaganzas, it’s easy to forgive The Bourne Supremacy its occasional transparent plot device (when a CIA bigwig is all about killing someone rather than capturing him, you know there’s a self-serving reason) and an ending that doesn’t know when to quit.
Like its predecessor, The Bourne Identity, this film returns to the less fanciful, more “realistic” realm of 1960s spy flicks along the lines of the Harry Palmer series (starring Michael Caine), with Palmer touted as “the thinking man’s James Bond.” Even when these films were at their most fantastic and flamboyant — with Sidney J. Furie and Ken Russell directing two of them, the Palmer flicks weren’t shy of stylistic touches! — they remained grounded in a real world that had no place for hyper-sexy spies, tricked-out Aston Martins, Saville Row tailoring and seemingly endless expense accounts.
Much the same is true of the recent films made of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne books. With their decidedly downbeat feeling, they take place in something that at least passes for the real world, deglamourizing the spy biz. Even their requisite action sequences aren’t so over-the-top as to smack of something that couldn’t exist outside the realm of computer graphics. And while I loathe the term “retro,” it nicely applies to these movie adaptations, which evidence a return to a kind of nuts-and-bolts filmmaking.
Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) has replaced director Doug Liman this round, upping the gritty-realism factor. And then there’s Matt Damon, an appealing but not terrifically distinctive actor who was … well, born to play Bourne. Not only does he have the requisite gravity, but he’s sufficiently free of an ingrained star personality; there’s never a sense of the movie being a “star vehicle.” This very quality makes Damon more an actor than a star, allowing his concerns to be focused on the character and the overall quality of a film, not on his own established persona.
The story in Supremacy finds Bourne living in India with Maria (Franka Potente), whom he met in the first film. All is not exactly well — Bourne is troubled by nightmares that hint at dark deeds he can’t remember — but at least it’s a workable arrangement until his past comes looking for him and Maria is killed. Bourne then sets out bent on revenge, and on finding some explanation for what’s happening to him; along the way, he uncovers the fact that he’s been set up for a murder he didn’t commit, while simultaneously stirring up the hornet’s next of his past as a CIA assassin.
There’s enough plot here for at least two movies, but Greengrass and screenwriter Tony Gilroy manage to keep everything perfectly lucid — perhaps too much so in some respects, since the viewer witnesses, more than experiences, Bourne’s mental turmoil. However, the approach is generally shrewd, carefully balancing the more cerebral aspects of the film with a variety of very effective — yet fairly simple — action and suspense set-pieces. Whether or not this will be enough to push the film over the top in any lasting box-office sense remains to be seen.
Supremacy furnishes the thrills well enough — there’s an absolutely brilliant shock effect in the final scene with high-ranking CIA man Ward Abbott (Brian Cox). But there’s too much text and subtext here for viewers only wanting the wow-crash-bang of the typical summer movie. And there’s a downside to the thrill approach, too, since the film’s final set-piece feels like a sop to the action crowd, doing little more than drag the proceedings out beyond their actual dramatic worth.
Still, The Bourne Supremacy is a very good film — and a blessed relief to the flood of mindless action flicks out there.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke