Although it didn’t seem obvious at the time of its release, The Bourne Identity (2002) is a quietly remarkable piece of studio-movie sedition. CGI-free, totally focused on the emotional impact of violence, and far less entranced with spectacle than with watching Matt Damon’s eyes make decisions about where the story is going, Doug Liman’s film amounted to a sweaty little anti-blockbuster. Of course, no one knew how to sell it, and so it had to find its redoubtable fan base on video and cable. Truly, Identity‘s palpable tension and sharp sense of resourceful panic still freeze the proverbial channel-racing thumb in mid-click—maybe because it eschews the safe harmlessness of digital F/X.
The sequel (titled by novelist Robert Ludlum with a certain dearth of subtlety and grace) picks up involuntary one-man death squad Jason Bourne (Damon) two years down the road—living with Marie (Franka Potente) off the grid in India, and haunted by incapacitating memory flashes. Around the same time a Russians-in-Berlin payoff run by Bourne’s old black-op agency goes bad (the saboteurs plant Bourne’s fingerprint on an unexploded bomb), another Russian hitman uncovers the happy couple where they live, and Marie takes one in the head for the sake of modus operandi. Thus armed with righteous fury, Bourne kicks back into action and decisively hunts down everybody that’s hunting him.
Director Paul Greengrass, a natural hire after Bloody Sunday, attempts to re-create Liman’s live-wire, low-tech grit, but only occasionally succeeds; too often during fight sequences, you’d swear the cameraman was having a grand mal. Likewise, most of Supremacy is an overedited headache that hardly makes up in frayed nerves what the visuals lack in clarity. The loss of the first film’s hurtling who-am-I? story engine is keenly felt, and too much time is spent observing the characters get on and off planes, trains, and automobiles as they hopscotch from Goa to Naples to Berlin. A harrowing car chase through Moscow that no one would’ve survived helps to alleviate the jet lag. But generally, it’s asking a lot from us to believe that the not-quite-forgotten case that yanks our reluctant hero back into executioner mode just happens to be the same incident giving him imagery seizures.
Superhumanly effective and reflexive, Bourne is an entertaining invention, and Damon supplies him with an engaging anxiety—even if the poor guy is so fearsomely adept that his various nemeses seem like stooges by comparison. (As the big evil boss, Brian Cox gets most of Ludlum’s best dialogue, the dinger of which might be his admonition to Joan Allen’s agency hotshot: “You’re in a big puddle of shit, Pam, and you don’t have the shoes for it.”) Otherwise, search in vain for performances amid the frantic jumble—Allen is given so little to do you begin to examine her oversprayed coif for clues to her character. As franchises go, the Bourne films are pleasantly down-to-earth, and even come armed with a respectable thematic tang. Unlike steaming turnips like Spy Game, The Recruit, and Bad Company, Ludlum’s saga is a prickly portrait of spy obsolescence and the dangerous entropy inherent in covert industries. Everywhere you look, there’s a top-secret scheme going bloodily awry. It may be an old-hat point to make, but it’s still in the headlines.