2000s, 4/4, Action, Paul Greengrass, Review

The Bourne Supremacy

Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

#1 in my ranking of the Bourne Franchise.

I have loved this movie since the very first time I saw it, which was on a plane back when not every seat had a screen. I watched it about eight rows back on the small television sized screen ahead, and I was enthralled for every minute despite the far from ideal viewing experience. Since, I’ve seen it about a dozen times and I’m completely engaged from beginning to end. I think this is one of the great thrillers.

Where this movie goes right so quickly is in the set up. There’s a certain ingeniousness to how the filmmakers, Tony Gilroy and Paul Greengrass, get Jason Bourne to leave his life on the run to return to the world of spycraft and the CIA. It’s a plot to frame Bourne for a crime he did not commit half a world away to give the CIA an endless ghost trail they’ll never be able to get to the end of. He’s a pawn in someone else’s game, and he turns everything on that. That they also get his love interest murdered early helps his motivation, but it also helps to focus the movie on its core essential points without worrying about a female tag-along character (which Marie kind of was in the first film to the point that Bourne jettisons her for the final act).

So, Bourne has taken his German girlfriend Marie on the run, and they’ve ended up in Goa, India. He’s consumed by nightmares, but there’s one in particular, about a job he did in Berlin, that’s occupying him now. That this is also related to the main plot is just good, economic storytelling. The plot of the film involves the killing of a CIA agent during an op in Berlin by a Russian assassin to hide evidence of an old wire transfer that got rerouted and lost years before. They frame the murder of the CIA agent on Bourne using his fingerprint with the understanding that the files the agent was buying were tied to Conklin, the man who ran Treadstone in the previous film for whom Jason Bourne worked. The idea being that the CIA would imagine Bourne was covering for his dead boss to protect himself, which, of course, he didn’t do. Hence, the ghost trail to nowhere.

I’ve read reviews where all of above paragraph feels out of reach of the reviewer, and I got it the first time on that airplane. It’s all said, doled out over the movie to those who pay attention.

So, the assassin goes to India to kill Bourne, kills Marie instead, and Bourne gets away with the Russian thinking he’s dead and the CIA looking for the Bourne who killed the CIA agent in Berlin. Where in The Bourne Identity, Jason felt at first behind the audience and then kind of drifting a bit, Jason feels direct and purposeful and oftentimes ahead of the audience in The Bourne Supremacy. He uses his tools, all of which feel really grounded in a tangible reality that fits in well with the grittier visual aesthetic that Paul Greengrass brings to his camera, to very quickly move from India to Berlin and find the people who are chasing them. It’s simply a satisfying look at his skills.

However, Jason is not simply a collection of skills. What makes him really compelling in this second film is the fact that he’s driven by guilt. He has these fractured memories of murders that the man who came out of that amnesia never did, and yet he did them. The fact that he’s disassociated from them doesn’t change the fact that his hands did it. The Russian politician and his wife whom Bourne sees himself murder every night in his dreams are dead because of him, and that haunts him. This all becomes really important later.

The movie contains two parallel plots, one is Bourne looking for answers to his questions and fractured memories, and the other is Pamela Landy, CIA task force chief, following the clues around Bourne. Landy is tasked with finding Bourne, but in order to do that the CIA Director pairs her with Ward Abbott, the man who was above Conklin in Treadstone in the previous film. The two clash, and for good reason, because Abbott ends up behind everything that Landy is looking for.

Let me take a second to talk about Joan Allen as Pam Landy. Joan Allen plays Pam as ice cold, and it’s great. She really feels like the kind of woman who could rise into this kind of role in the CIA. She takes no guff from anyone, and she pushes harder than she gets pushed. She has a steely gaze that fits so perfectly with the role, and she’s one of my favorite parts of the movie.

One of the most interesting things about the main plot of the film, about the CIA files and Bourne and Conklin, is that it ends with almost thirty minutes left in the movie. Bourne finds out Abbot, gets him to confess, and hands the tape to Landy, and yet the movie keeps going. Why?

I’ve read of some criticism that the final act when Bourne moves from Berlin to Moscow is pointless because, well, the plot is over by that point. And yet, there’s the second story about Bourne dealing with his guilt. The entire reason Bourne was following the trail of breadcrumbs that happened to coincide with Pam Landy’s trail of breadcrumbs was because he was haunted by these images from Berlin, and he needed to figure them out. He needed some closure. Well, he was never going to find his closure in Berlin. The people he killed weren’t German, they were Russian. So, he goes to Russia to atone, and that’s where the first plot, even though it’s actually over, reaches out and makes things exciting with a car chase (possibly the best car chase on film). It’s related to both, but ultimately about Bourne’s guilt and decision to walk away from the life he had been leaving in a wonderfully visual moment where Bourne goes into the light out of a tunnel after the chase instead of the dark of the other way forward.

Now, I’ve danced around with the story enough, what about the action elements? I love them. Here’s the thing about Paul Greengrass and his shaky-cam visuals: He’s really good at them. There’s a perception that it’s all about just sort of capturing small bits of action and stitching them together, but as I watched The Bourne Supremacy this time, I watched with an eye towards those scenes. I think I’ve figured out how I can be so comfortable with them.

The key is that while the bulk of these sequences are built out of very small visual pieces, these pieces are intercut with establishing shots that last at least a second and a half every three to five seconds. So, what Greengrass is doing is giving you a view of what’s going on from a medium or long shot, and then closing in for a feeling of frantic action before pulling out again for a second and then pushing in again. It’s a cycle that he follows and it allows for a shocking amount of clarity considering the reputation. Some might say that a second and a half simply isn’t enough to ground oneself, but I can do it just fine. For all the close ups, I never have any problem with the geography of the scene, never losing sight of where one subject in the frame is relative to the other. It’s a style that many simply don’t like, but I find it effective at replicating the frantic style of thinking mixed with a clear-eyed view of the overall action.

And, going back to the film’s actual ending, where Bourne finally gets a chance to atone for his sins to someone he actually hurt: It’s such a great little scene. It’s quiet and painful. It’s also a marvelous way to end the film, but the film continues on for another couple of minutes with a kind of cutesy final conversation between Landy and Bourne that I like as a coda, but I still kind of wish that they had left it in Russia.

The Bourne Supremacy is a great film. It’s a great action film. It’s a great thriller. It is Paul Greengrass elevating the material and Tony Gilroy finding a way to deepen it. I love this film.

Rating: 4/4

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