The Bourne Supremacy (12A)

A superspy is Bourne
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The Independent Culture

The constituents of the spy thriller The Bourne Supremacy are pretty formulaic - a man on the run, double agents, determined assassins, and so much "international traveller" to-ing and fro-ing around airports that one half-expects the film to end by recommending the tax-free shopping available on the way out. Yet British director Paul Greengrass carries off many of these duties very well, and actually does one thing rather brilliantly: it's that trope when two men are in a room apparently talking peaceably and in the blink of an eye one of them suddenly disables the other with a blow to the windpipe or an elbow to the solar plexus. There's nothing very original about the manoeuvre, it's just the whiplash switch to violence that impresses.

The constituents of the spy thriller The Bourne Supremacy are pretty formulaic - a man on the run, double agents, determined assassins, and so much "international traveller" to-ing and fro-ing around airports that one half-expects the film to end by recommending the tax-free shopping available on the way out. Yet British director Paul Greengrass carries off many of these duties very well, and actually does one thing rather brilliantly: it's that trope when two men are in a room apparently talking peaceably and in the blink of an eye one of them suddenly disables the other with a blow to the windpipe or an elbow to the solar plexus. There's nothing very original about the manoeuvre, it's just the whiplash switch to violence that impresses.

Champion exponent of this technique is Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), CIA agent-turned-amnesiac whom we first met in The Bourne Identity two years ago. Bourne has since dropped off the grid and found anonymity with his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente), but it seems that not even a beachfront shack in Goa is an adequate shelter from the forces of darkness, and soon they are being pursued through picturesque market streets by a man in a black 4x4 (as if it's not enough for those things just to hog the road). There's something even less agreeable pursuing Bourne, and it's the fractured memory of his former life, specifically what he did - or might have done - as part of a special operation known as Treadstone. Blurred flashbacks to a double killing appear to finger him as the murderer, and an unstable compound of doubt and remorse drives him on towards the truth.

Greengrass's fast, jangling cutting sets a formidable pace, and he tops up the urgency with the edgy, handheld camerawork he used so effectively in Bloody Sunday. Bourne is also being hunted by his former paymasters, and it's a credit to the camera's crash zooms and Joan Allen's taut, humourless command (she plays a CIA honcho) that even the backroom procedures acquire a sort of tension: the glow of computer screens, the constant trilling of cellphones. We are afforded the continuous illusion of eavesdropping on something tremendously important. The plot pinballs around a confounding sequence of locations - Naples, Amsterdam, Munich, Berlin, Moscow - yet the film doesn't use these as lazy postcard filler à la Bond: in one scene Bourne has to make contact with a CIA junior (Julia Stiles) in a Berlin square and he uses the confusion of a protest demo to cover his rendezvous. That Bourne knew there would be a demo is signalled by the merest flash of a fly poster that caught his eye as he arrived in Berlin, a tribute both to his improvisation and to Greengrass's economical way with narrative.

Talking of Bond, I presume that the success of the Bourne movies will encourage the producers to consider a franchise. The recent Bond pictures have been looking increasingly sclerotic, and there seems to be an opportunity to wrest the superspy mantle from 007. "The name's Bourne. Jason Bourne". Well, it may take some getting used to....Time was when the idea of Matt Damon carrying a scene, let alone a movie franchise, would have been cause for misgivings; I've always found his callow, farm-boy wholesomeness of limited appeal and occasionally a blight on what ought to have been his chance to shine (e.g. The Talented Mr. Ripley).

Yet, as Bourne, Damon gives a performance as unshowy as the dark, functional duds he ghosts around in, and he looks every inch the sort of man who spends his life looking over his shoulder. His talk, similarly stripped of flourish, deals only with what's necessary: the screenwriter Tony Gilroy doesn't make him spout slick one-liners so that crowds can whoop and pummel the air. Where Bond is flirty and genial, Bourne is introspective and melancholic, which doesn't sound much like an action hero but may just be what an audience wants now.

Another strong element of his appeal is a startling knack for getting out of tight corners. He's an escape artist who seemingly holds a whole deck of false passports to draw from, and he has an almost telepathic awareness of where the enemy will be. At times his slipperiness defies belief - a rat couldn't shinny up a drainpipe quicker than he does - but the film is careful to remind us that he's human; at the end of an especially long chase Bourne leaps down on to a river barge, injures his leg and hobbles away into the night. In other movies that mishap would be quickly forgotten, but not here: he spends the rest of the picture with a pronounced limp.

While it probably won't appear on many Best of 2004 lists, The Bourne Supremacy is paced so efficiently and staged so expertly that you may find yourself recommending it to friends. At a time when so many action movies leave us half-numbed by their thud and blunder, this one takes pride in its steely professionalism. That makes it sound rather impersonal, and it's true that car chases, be they ever so exhilarating at the time, don't tend to resonate weeks later, or even a day later. But it's a sign of the film's willingness to go out on a limb that the climactic chase is followed by a scene of sombre confession: a man quietly apologises to a young woman for the murder of her parents, and the surprise is that one feels touched by the grief of the bereaved and by the contrition of the killer. That's worth a sequel just on its own.

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