“It’s easy. She’s standing right next to you.”
The idea that a sequel can best its predecessor is one that many people believe impossible save one or two exceptions to prove the rule. We’re talking The Godfather: Part II caliber stuff—prestige pieces with weight behind them for critical acclaim and box office success. So you may find me hyperbolic to say this, but I think The Bourne Supremacy belongs on this ultra short list. Don’t demean it by exclaiming how an action film doesn’t deserve to sit alongside a Francis Ford Coppola magnum opus because that’s extremely reductive and pretentiously shortsighted. The Bourne Identity is no slouch by any stretch of the imagination whether excitement, intelligence, or emotion is being graded and yet Paul Greengrass‘ sequel beats it in each one of those categories without question.
Credit screenwriter Tony Gilroy for suggesting Greengrass on the strength of what I believe is his greatest cinematic achievement: Bloody Sunday. He was correct to think the auteur’s close-up handheld cinema verité style would suit the Bourne saga. And since the director’s chair was vacant after the struggles endured with Identity‘s steward Doug Liman, some new blood was just what the doctor ordered. Greengrass infuses a more brutal tone with the action, having his lead Matt Damon bulk up for this rendition of Jason Bourne to spar with Marton Csokas‘ Jarda in a confined space for extended-take choreography that lets us feel every impactful blow. The logistics appear insane at times and the climactic car chase is worthy of placement alongside The French Connection. Yes, I said it.
This is an angrier Bourne still unaware of who he was, but cognizant of whom he is. Currently on the run in India with Marie (Franka Potente), two years have passed without a peep from anyone associated with Langley or Treadstone. Everything appeared quiet, their desire to start a new life in reach until a stranger arrives who doesn’t quite fit the scenery. We saw this unknown Russian operative (Karl Urban) ambush a CIA operation minutes earlier while leaving a fingerprint not his own on the explosive device that helped him gain access. It seems he is setting Bourne up, making it look like the shadow assassin came out of hiding to hit back at America. And with one stray bullet, that’s exactly what Bourne does.
A war between Jason and the agency once again unfolds with neither side knowing exactly why. He wants to know why his tragic life was made worse and District Director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) digs for answers to explain his unexpected re-surfacing. Whereas the CIA could predict his movements in Identity—knowing his usual safe houses and hotel rooms—Supremacy puts him in charge. He drops the breadcrumbs for Landy and ex-Treadstone lead Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) to follow, staying one step ahead the entire time as he investigates the truth of what happened to her men in Germany. But while he didn’t kill those two men, it’s presented that he may have killed two others in the country long ago. The present begins to uncover the past.
As much as Bourne’s hunt is for answers, however, there’s also an angle for revenge that allows his aggression to boil over. The one thing he had to live for was taken away and now he has nothing left to lose. So he lets himself be taken into custody, fighting out of interrogation after procuring the tools necessary to contact Landy. He risks being caught in public because he must speak with old Treadstone peer Nicky (Julia Stiles) to parse details that have remained murky otherwise. Bourne’s actions begin to appear reckless and yet he’s in full control even when they are. Abbott should be demanding his swift death because he’s the only one who truly knows his creation’s capabilities should he be given the chance.
The characters are a bit more fleshed out here too with Bourne’s newfound idealism and empathy shining above the mechanics of his proficient strength. We see what Marie’s influence on him has provided and mourn the painful nightmares and paranoia that still prevents him from truly letting go. Cox’s Abbott is expanded upon in a way that breathes life into a strictly authoritarian role from the first film while also drawing him more dangerous than Chris Cooper‘s Conklin ever was. His existence as the wild card whose head we never quite get inside until it’s too late provides the room for an agent like Landy to come in with by-the-books objectivity. Allen plays the part flawlessly, her tough exterior of anger matched with a tough interior of justice.
By letting these three keep each other in the dark and slowly unearth hidden motivations, Gilroy lets us glean details of the past to infer on actions of today. It’s a complex script that keeps its depth subtle enough to permeate our consciousness involuntarily as the surface action increases to eleven with each engagement in pursuit. There’s a built-in mirror from past and present that can be called contrived by anyone unwilling to let the ride overcome their pedantry, but its existence provide answers and evolution. Bourne’s no longer that man in his nightmares and he never wants to become him again. As much as he craves getting the CIA off his back, he also wants the truth relieve some of the guilt weighing down his soul.
There are no lulls whether quiet moments before fights sowing seeds of added intrigue or contemplative periods of thought forever rushed by the ticking clock of an adversary hot on his heels. In order to do what’s needed, Bourne must remain in close proximity with his opponent, drawing them in to work his magic and let them implicate themselves of wrongdoing. We watch his stealth in real-time and his faux stealth on the computer screens of people still unable to believe his “mistakes” are intentional. But just because his journey supplies vindication doesn’t mean the yearning to destroy the actual person that for all intents and purposes destroyed his new life disappears. When Damon and Urban’s eyes meet again at the end, all hell breaks loose.
The seemingly dual epilogues occurring after the dust settles are included for closure, their respective melodrama and comedy meant to give the audience an injection of emotion after the high-octane adrenaline rush evaporates. Don’t fret, though, because they also allow Damon’s character to come full circle and understand his past and desire to live with it. The heart-wrenching scene with a victim’s lone surviving family member is crucial to see Bourne isn’t merely a product of his amnesia. He has literally changed on a fundamental level, this fresh existence readying him to accept his past even if he cannot remember it. The Bourne Supremacy might close one chapter and open another, but it’s also an engrossingly smart thrill ride with immense rewatchability all on its own.