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Bourne Supremacy, The

Reviewed By David Hollands
Posted 07/18/05 08:30:18

"A truly supreme action/thriller film."
5 stars (Awesome)

Let's not beat around the bush - The Bourne Identity was one of the most un-exciting action movies of 2002. A cliched bore a film that featured nearly every familiarity (romantic interest haphazardly inserted into the story, plot revelations one could see coming a mile away, a typically one-dimensional log of a hero) in the action/thriller genre, it was also directed so lifelessly that it made the expression "going through the motions" fresh again. It excited just about as much as watching a turtle having sex, and actually, that colourful little phrase describes the film perfectly - it must have been exciting for the turtle (the filmmakers), yet painfully boring for any onlookers (the audience).

So, when The Bourne Supremacy hit cinemas, I'm sure you can tell what my thoughts were going in. However, two things had escaped me. One was a masterpiece of a movie entitled Bloody Sunday, and the other was the fact that that film's director Paul Greengrass was at the helm of Supremacy. That should have told me right away that Supremacy would not only be ten times the film its predecessor was, but that it would also turn out to be one of the best action films ever made.

The Bourne Supremacy picks up with Jason Bourne and his lover Marie in Goa, India. Jason and Marie are still hiding from the CIA, yet the past catches up with them quickly. For, at about the same time in Berlin, a CIA operation with the goal to purchase classified Russian documents goes to Hell when a team of operatives is executed. The only logical explanation is that there is an informant in the CIA for the wrong side...and Jason Bourne's fingerprints are quickly discovered at the scene of the crime. Back in Goa, Bourne is immediately chased by Kirill, a sadistic agent working for an unknown contractor. After Marie is killed, Bourne sets out to discover who set him up, to avenge Marie's death, and to fulfill his promise to the CIA that if Bourne were to see any agents on his tail, he would bring the fight right to the agency's doorstep. One trying to decipher what's occurring is Pamela Landy, a CIA agent who may soon prove to be Bourne's only ally.

The screenplay by Tony Gilroy pretty much jettisons the plot of the Robert Ludlum novel, and embarks on a successful quest of originality. The mechanics of the story are worked out perfectly - character motivation is believable at all times, and the characters themselves are all richly drawn. Unlike in the The Bourne Identity, which featured soulless ciphers filling practically every major role, the Supremacy filmmakers concentrate on making the characters resonate with an audience. For, in a serious action film, the characters are absolutely key to make the whole of the film work. Without well-drawn characters, care not only in them, but for the events within the film would have been lost in the audiences' minds. Jason Bourne in this film is brought to wonderful life. There are moments in which Bourne is allowed to demonstrate that he isn't simply another action hero - he's a human being, capable of everything from getting hurt to being emotionally destroyed. Being that anyone watching this movie is human in just that way, the audience can identify completely with Bourne and his plight. Also, by making Bourne human, the tension within the film is immediately upped considerably. For, if Bourne is human, he can be killed. There are moments in the film in which Bourne comes extremely close to death or capture, and it's all the more exciting for the audience to see how he escapes each situation. Also, the final action sequences comes about from a purely character driven standpoint. The reason Bourne attempts to reach a certain location come the conclusion is simple and heartbreaking. The scene coming directly after the chase is amazing - the film here doesn't end with a literal bang, but instead on a character moment.

Tony Gilroy's script also receives high marks for not doing certain things. There's no romantic subplot in the film. In fact, the female lead is pretty much pushed aside within the first ten minutes of the movie, allowing The Bourne Supremacy to concentrate solely on developing the story with originality, but most importantly, honesty. The script is unapologetic to Bourne. Constant problems and character sluggings are constantly coming his way throughout the film in a way that feels logical and true. When Bourne's love is killed, that moment is a welcome cinematic imitation of real life. When Bourne discovers the secret within his subconscious that has been disturbing him for a long while, the revelation is horrific. And that's the beauty of the film - it respects the audience enough to allow questionable character moments that the audience may not agree with, such as Bourne being cruel and merciless (believe me, that happens often). Also, it leaves the audience to come to their own conclusions about Jason Bourne himself. When one discovers the suffering he's caused as a result of his previous actions before his amnesia, one has a difficult time accepting him as a purely good guy. This film isn't black and white, to put it simply. There's a wonderful grey area throughout.

The script never makes the mistake of revealing key information to the audience before Jason Bourne or any other major character discovers it. The audience discovers the plot details as Bourne does, making the movie a constantly exciting experience. While the revelations aren't necessarily all that surprising, the way in which they are revealed definitely is. The plot, in essence, is familiar territory. But Gilroy has a marvellous way of revealing this plot information in consistently interesting and surprising fashion. For example, when one major character murders a minor one, the moment is surprising and tense even if it is familiar, because the character is shown as slightly sympathetic. Even though his actions are less than moral, the audience can understand why he does certain things. We even come to identify with his plight as well, and that only reinforces the way that this film constantly surprises on all levels. Basically, it's the fact that actual human beings inhabit the world of this film that helps the audience glide over the small familiarities. Each character motivation is believable, and carries a great weight to it, so that the cliches within the film don't have that "cliche" feeling. It may be familiar, but it's also true.

Director Paul Greengrass shoots every sequence in the film with a superb hand-held intensity. The camera is hardly ever still, giving each moment the feeling of never-ending momentum. This whole film leaves one constantly breathless, as the intensity in each sequence builds as the number of shot changes increases, and the shakiness of the image becomes more intense. Now, there have been many complaints about the hand-held camerawork being distracting and blurry. I don't agree for one major reason: one can make out what's happening at all times. Even if one may get a little case of nausea while watching (especially if one watches this on a large screen), one simply can't say that the camerawork makes the film incomprehensible. To do so would admit that one just wasn’t paying that much attention while watching. Due to this fact, the camerawork makes the film especially exciting and involving. Greengrass pulls the audience in effortlessly. This is one of those rare cases in which this "shaky-cam" technique is employed where one can truly say that it puts the audience right in the action with the characters.

Greengrass also does something pretty interesting at times. There are moments in which Greengrass deliberately obscures the image so the audience may not quite see a certain event that happens. The audience is momentarily confused, for example, during a sequence in which Bourne meets up with a former agent in his program. The two soon engage in a brutal fight, and the camera shows their legs colliding, and their hands moving in a series of blurred motions. While some may say that this is extremely annoying, I happen to think it's brilliant. For this shows that Greengrass isn't afraid of not having a constant perfect image on the screen for the entire running time so that the audience can easily swallow the film (something that The Bourne Identity cannot claim at all, unfortunately). By having this courage, Greengrass puts the audience right within the fight. If you feel sick by the end of the sequence, if you feel as if what you've seen is utterly confusing, know that that's exactly how Bourne would have experienced the fight. Thankfully, Greengrass isn't Michael Bay. He knows that these various confusing bits need to be few and far between, otherwise this movie would become another Bad Boys 2. Because Greengrass varies these moments, the audience accepts them as being good sections in which we connect perfectly with the character of Jason Bourne.

Of course, the majority of the action bits are all fantastic. Paul Greengrass has such a talent for getting the audience's blood pumping, that by the end of the film, even the most cholesterol-free individuals would probably suffer severe heart attacks. The action is all staged in a dizzying fashion, in which so much occurs during a single sequence, that it's a surprise that the sequences came together as effortlessly as they did. Moments in which Bourne runs from his pursuers are shot without tripods. The image is never still for even a fraction of a second, which ups the intensity considerably. During moments in which the characters are driving, Greengrass places the camera between seats, under the steering wheels, and any position he possibly can to make the audience feel claustrophobic as Hell. The concluding car chase in the film, one of the greatest in the last ten years, is when every trick Greengrass has up his sleeve comes out full force. There are some crazy shots within this final chase - shots from other vehicles, shots in which the camera was attached to the cars the characters were driving, two shots that show a) the interior of the car, b) Jason Bourne, c) another car colliding with Jason's, and d) Jason's reaction...all at the same time. Shots like that boggle the mind, and one can safely say that given the knowledge that no computer generated images were used in this sequence (and if there were some, they were d*mn hard to spot).

Finally, the action within the film is logical. Unlike any Stallone or Schwarzenegger epic (and don't get me wrong, some of those are really great as well) in which the action seems quite literally impossible, the action in The Bourne Supremacy is almost entirely believable. While Jason surviving multiple car impacts and STILL being able to walk away with his spine intact push the boundaries of reality slightly, the action photography makes the footage feel so grungy that the audience just accepts it anyway. (And to be fair to this film, Jason does walk away pretty bloody and with a serious limp - unlike, say, in The Bourne Identity, when Jason takes that computer generated ride on the fat man down a spiral staircase and walks away practically unscathed). And to complete the cycle of brilliance inherent in Greengrass' direction, one only has to notice that the entire film, and not just the action sequences, feel like the same kind of sequences. Never have I ever seen a dialogue exchange photographed like an action scene, and it not only didn't seem ridiculous, but it actually made me FEEL like I was watching more car crashes and explosions unfolding before my eyes. Incredible. If Greengrass continues with this wonderfully creative style, I'll be following him every step of the way.

The editing by Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse is razor-sharp. There's no lagging anywhere throughout the film. Every scene included is absolutely necessary to the story being told. The fact that the action sequences are amazingly edited is a given. However, that the character sequences and the moments meant to push plot are edited just as carefully shows that every element of the production went completely into making this a great film. There's one montage in which Jason Bourne searches news clippings on the Internet. As he gathers more information, and comes increasingly closer to discovering the truth about himself, the editing becomes furious. Shots getting closer to Bourne's face are used in wonderful progression. Instead of coming off as obvious and gimmicky, the editing rhythms constantly engage the audience. Sometimes, the editors stray from the normal way of editing in order to indicate that something is slightly off within the scene, or to make a certain moment stand out to full effect. For example, there's one moment when Kirill, while driving a sports vehicle, crashes right into Bourne's hijacked taxi. Instead of showing the impact right away, Pearson and Rouse show Kirill approaching. Then, there's a shot through the back window of the taxi. We see a bit of Kirill's vehicle through the back window of the taxi as the camera shakes wildly. Then, there's a shot of Bourne reacting to the impact. Only after those shots do we see the actual result of the impact from outside the car. It's an amazingly cool moment, as it shows that the editors wanted the audience to feel Bourne's reaction first and then show us what happened after. Most likely, that's what would have happened had the audience been Bourne in that moment. Bourne would have felt the impact, and only after a few moments realised what had happened. Little editing moments such as those are sprinkled throughout the film, and they only make the movie better.

What surprised me the most during The Bourne Supremacy was actually Oliver Wood's cinematography. In most of the films Wood has photographed, the visuals are often murky and quite vile at which to look. Only rarely has he ever impressed me, and this is thankfully one of those instances. While there are one or two moments during the movie where the photography slips (such as one ridiculously grainy shot during the concluding car chase when Bourne's taxi hits a car out of the way, or another out of focus shot just near the end of the film in which we see Pamela through a window), the work is mostly first rate and quite atmospheric. The whole film has a very gritty look to it, in which much of the background dissolves into shadow, even pure blackness. It looks real, and makes one feel that he or she is definitely right there in the film in the middle of the action. Of course, that doesn't mean that some visual exaggeration isn't in order. There are some beautiful shots throughout the movie, including one exterior aerial view of Berlin that's gorgeous. Also, when the big final car chase heads into a long tunnel, green lighting in employed, and it looks wonderful. So, Oliver Wood can add The Bourne Supremacy to his (very) short list of good lighting jobs. This film is simply full of surprises.

John Powell contributes a fantastic score to the film. Each sequence literally pounds the audience aurally, the music adding all the correct elements to make each sequence function to the best of its ability. What's best is that Powell never overdoes the music. His score only aids the scene, and it never hinders it. Plus, the music is just down-right exciting. For example, whenever Jason Bourne releases his inner wolf (so to speak) on others, there is a huge bass hit that rocks the audience through the back wall. During any action sequence, the music does nothing except build and build, never allowing the audience even a moment to relax. Such standout moments include the sequence in which Bourne searches the news clippings, and (naturally) during the final car chase. What's most interesting about the music is how it's mixed in the overall sound design. Instead of typically having all the effects be the loudest thing in the mix, it's the opposite. The music takes centre stage here, and I think it was a marvellous decision. Since the score is so intense, even if the film had played without any sound effects at all, the sheer level of breathlessness would remain the same. Powell's score for The Bourne Identity was the best thing about that film. How wonderful that in The Bourne Supremacy the score would not only be just as good, but it would also be among other elements just as fantastic.

Now, while all the above elements of the film are superb, The Bourne Supremacy would have fallen flat had it not featured great performances. This is a serious action thriller, thus good acting is key to bringing the whole thing together. I must admit that I wasn't excited that Matt Damon was once again playing the role of Jason Bourne. While I usually love the guy's performances, he just wasn't alive in the least in The Bourne Identity. While the role required some depth, he just didn't have it. That all changes with The Bourne Supremacy. Not only is Damon better, he's actually amazing. The character comes to life here in a way I never would have expected. Damon performs each sequence beautifully. During the action bits, his physicality is great and he really makes the audience believe that he is indeed being punched, rammed in to, etc. However, it's actually the character moments in which Damon excels here. This is a different Bourne than in the previous film. Here, the character is much more human, and Damon grabs hold of that and uses it wonderfully. Whenever Damon shows the typical emotions demonstrating human weakness (anger, sadness, confusion, etc.), he does them all in a manner that's completely believable. The best moment is the one in which he realises what he has done before his amnesia, and confronts an individual linked loosely to his past. Damon performs that scene like a master, his eyes filled with life and his movements perfectly controlled. It's a great performance that's wrapped around a great film.

Joan Allen as CIA agent Pamela Landy has great intensity. The character isn't much beyond one-dimensional, but Allen manages to add some wonderful little touches. Her eyes especially, just like Damon's, hold a fire that makes her character come across as an interesting one to watch. Especially good is the scene in which she must confront another CIA agent concerning his treachery, and while she must keep her gruff exterior, one can see that like any human being, she is truly nervous inside. That fear is communicated to us again through her eyes and through little key actions. Her performance during the final moments of that particular sequence is really good. As CIA agent Ward Abbott from the previous film, Brian Cox, having gone through the motions in The Bourne Identity, gives a wonderfully layered performance. The guy is a flawed character, and Cox brings that through very well. Last but not least, in the mostly silent role of Kirill, Karl Urban gives a frightening performance. Having little to no dialogue through which to communicate the character's intensity, Urban must rely completely on his physical action and his eyes. He pulls off the performance very well. Hell, just him standing in a shot is enough to let the audience know that this isn't exactly the nicest person around. Plus, there's one moment that's really well performed. Kirill sees Bourne while Kirill is on top of a bridge. He shoots at Bourne, and the expression on Urban's face is one of pure hatred. The performances being as good as they are only help to cement The Bourne Supremacy as a fantastic film.

With great direction, a great screenplay, and fantastic performances, The Bourne Supremacy is easily one of the best films of 2004. It's also a great action/thriller adventure that's miles ahead of its predecessor. The film is never boring, and even if it's breathless, it's never exhausting. What it is, however, is a movie made by filmmakers at the top of their games.

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