Most of the time, when filmmakers tackle a sequel to a sleeper hit, there’s an overriding urge to make things exponentially bigger and crazier than they ever were before and while sometimes this pays of big (the super-sizing of Terminator 2 for example), other times it just swamps the original concept, diluting what made the first film great in the first place. However, sometimes all you need are just a few slight shifts and course corrections to make a franchise sing and a stella instance of this is the subtle changes director Paul Greengrass made to everyone’s favourite amnesiac sleeper agent Jason Bourne. The first film, stylishly chiseled out of a tumultuous production by Doug Liman, gave us a whip-smart spy flick that didn’t compromise its brains even when its enigmatic yet relatable lead was beating the shit out of a rival assassin with a biro, but under the eye of Greengrass The Bourne Supremacy became exactly that. Superior.
Jason Bourne is chilling out in Goa, India with girlfriend Maria after the events that saw the former agent lose his memory, turn against his handlers and bring down the shady, government assassin programme known as Treadstone, but it turns out Bourne isn’t out of the woods yet. While he continues to struggle with his long term memory, unbeknownst to him, he’s about to be framed for an attack on an operation in Berlin that’s been mounted by CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy and pretty soon, the long suffering agent’s name is thrown into numerous, tense conversations about what the agency should do with the errant Bourne. However, finding him isn’t going to be an issue, because the the Russian oligarch who ordered the hit in order to hide some of his immensely dodgy doings has sent his attack dog to India to take out Bourne in order to make his subterfuge iron clad but only succeeds in killing Maria instead.
Understandably angered by this state of affairs, Bourne, who is under the impression that it was the CIA who took the shot, returns to end Treadstone once and for all, not realising that it doesn’t actually exist anymore, so while he digs up leads to find out where to mistakenly aim his rage, the CIA is also out for his blood even though both sides are innocent.
Working his way to Landy with the ruthless determination of a ninja shark, Bourne employs his impressive skills to get ever closer to the truth while still remembering Maria’s plea that he doesn’t have to be a killer anymore – but a barely recovered memory resurfaces that hints that some of the assassinations he performed while working at Treadstone may have been more off the books than others. What does this memory mean and how is it linked to the chaotic spy shit that’s happening to him now?
While The Bourne Identity was a magnificent shot in the arm for spy movie enthusiasts, Doug Liman’s opening film saw our hero disoriented and uncertain by the events that left his brain misfiring harder than a busted engine and while it helped us warm to Matt Damon’s uncertain assassin, Bourne was constantly playing defence due to the fact that he had no idea what was going on. However, thanks to some confident direction Paul Greengrass’ this time we get to see Bourne utterly focused and being totally proactive about achieving his goals – which includes him going to war with the CIA. It’s a thrilling example of someone only making minor changes to an established formula that pay off dividends, because despite that odd tweak here and there The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy are very similar movies. Both feature suspiciously familiar scenes involving Bourne wiping out unsuspecting guards, a jaw clenching foot chase to avoid authorities, a frantic fight involving Bourne owning somebody’s ass with a household object (in this case a rolled magazine) and an absolutely vicious car case, but with Greengrass’ cooler, more harsh style, these events still feel fresh and carry the sufficient weight needed to utterly rules; besides, a Bourne movie without any of the above would kind of be like a Star Wars film without a space battle or a lightsabre – they’re sort of a trademark at this point.
Aside from this, Bourne’s world is significantly widened while still keeping the mystery and Julia Stiles’ Nicky, Marton Csokas last surviving sleeper agent and Brian Cox’s typically untrustworthy former Treadstone chief make welcome returns as Joan Allen makes significant waves as the stunningly determined Pamela Landy and Karl Urban continues on his quest to be awesome in every franchise he possibly cram into a single career as he gives his Russian assasin a steely swagger.
This is probably debatable, but I truly believe that The Bourne Supremacy is the franchise in its ultimate form, perfectly staged and set up to provide an iron clad balance between the nicely complicated spy stuff (the fact that everyone is reacting to false leads is a nice touch which reinforces the distrust of authority the first movie put out in waves) and the legitimately crunching action, but the true cherry on the clandestine cake is the ending which takes things in a whole new direction.
Aside from the far more stripped back, secret agent stuff, another thing that distanced Matt Damon’s Bourne from his closest rival (aka. James Bond) is a sense of humanity that other cinematic spies usually lack, but here the filmmakers embrace it all the tighter by having Bourne not kill a helpless enemy and – more impressively – actually seek out the daughter of a Russian politician and his wife who he assassinated years ago and apologise to her for what he did. It’s an audacious move and utterly unheard of when other guys either never seem to rack up collateral damage (Ethan Hunt) or simply wipes people off the face of the earth without a second thought. Could you imagine James Bond showing up at the apartment of the teenage child of some henchman he electrocuted or fed to a shark or something just to get a bit of guilt off his chest? It’s a powerful moment and it’s one that’s vital to keeping Borne separate from his peers, but not everything The Bourne Supremacy does lives up to the title. The “fridging” of Franka Potente’s Marie for example may be a plot necessity to get Matt Damon’s spy angry and on the move, but it’s still something of a dated plot trope and the shaky-cam fights, still so innovative in 2004, only serves to obscure some cool fight choreography. However, the weirdest problem the movie has is that it ends on such a perfect note, the filmmakers had to resort to some time jump trickery in order to make things stretch to a trilogy (and beyond).
Still, none of this comes close to taking the sheen off the most accomplished of the Bourne series – in fact, you could even say it was Bourne again…