The Bourne Supremacy is top-drawer genre filmmaking — an intense, intelligent, exciting, impeccable spy thriller. Its director, Paul Greengrass, has a background in much smaller films like The Theory of Flight and Bloody Sunday, and the exponential budgetary leap hasn’t turned him into a hack for hire — his work here is idiosyncratic, rough around the edges, and all the more riveting for it. The Bourne Identity, this film’s predecessor, also brought in an indie director — Doug Liman of Swingers and Go. The move worked there, too, but Greengrass takes more risks and collects larger dividends. Hollywood in summer doesn’t get much better than this.
Though I’ve been relishing the character-driven blockbusters we’ve gotten lately — Spider-Man 2 and King Arthur fit that bill — I’m delighted to see one that’s all plot. As labyrinthine as any Mamet story, full of shady CIA conspiracies, repressed memories, and gotcha! double-crosses, it speeds along on tracks made of car chases, daring escapes and bare-knuckle brawls. There’s barely a pause, and I never yearned for one; the film is remarkably adept at giving weight to the characters and the performances despite the breakneck pace.
Indeed, the small, meticulous character moments are a large part of what makes the action feel so exciting and dangerous. As the film opens, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is in India with his beloved Marie (Franka Potente). The rapport between them, and the great heapings of trust they put in each other (watch how unquestioningly he accepts her assessments of the situation during their chase scene), make what happens after India that much more significant, give the usual life-or-death scenarios considerable added heft.
What distinguishes those life-or-death scenarios from most of Hollywood’s action-adventure stylings is how startlingly real they seem to be. Oh, Jason Bourne’s derring-do probably falls outside the realm of possibility for the most part — it’s doubtful that someone could be that quick, that strong, that smart, all at the same time — but the laws of physics apply, and when Bourne manages a stunning escape, we believe that it’s because he’s that good, not because the action movie gods have smiled on him and contrived a way out. His cleverness may leave your jaw near the floor, but rather than scoffing “oh, please” your tune will likely be “why didn’t I think of that?”
Greengrass complements the script’s verisimilitude by lending the proceedings an immediacy rarely found in glossy summer tentpoles. His camera rarely stays still, and the disorienting results may be off-putting to some, but I loved coldly energetic, high-impact nature of the action scenes — when Bourne and a second superspy duke it out, you may not be able to tell precisely what’s going on, but you can feel every blow. The several car chases are filmed in the same vein; it takes some getting used to, but I quickly found myself reacting in surprisingly visceral ways — flinching, jumping backward in my seat, even grabbing the armrests at a point or two. I am shocked at how much freedom Greengrass was permitted in a big-budget studio film like this, but glad that Universal saw the promise of his approach.
Matt Damon is a perfect fit into all of this, coming as close as anyone could to selling us on his character’s incredible spy acumen. There’s also a warm streak buried just underneath his steely demeanor — he can kick all kinds of ass when he has to, but he would prefer to escape rather than engage, and there is always, always the certainty that he would rather die than hurt an innocent. When he interrogates an accomplice in staging his Bourne Identity ordeal, he is cruel, but that cruelty is perfectly calculated — she is far from innocent, and she may be scared for her life, but we know that she is much safer alone in a room with him than with her cronies at the CIA.
I should mention that the last act takes place almost entirely in Moscow, and that the brilliant use of real locations makes it the most realistically Russian 30 minutes I have ever seen in an American film. Matt Damon even manages a few surprisingly convincing Russian sentences, though why they hired Karl Urban to do nothing but speak mangled Russian, I will never know