Monday, December 12, 2016

The Bourne Supremacy (Universal, Motion Picture THETA Produktiongesellschaft, the Kennedy/Marshall Company, Ludlum Entertainment, Hypnotic., 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Bourne Supremacy, second in the cycle of Jason Bourne films made by Universal in association with the usual polyglot assortment of special-purpose production companies: Motion Picture THETA Produktiongesellschaft, the Kennedy/Marshall Company, Ludlum Entertainment and Hypnotic. It was released in 2004, two years after The Bourne Identity, and featured the same star, Matt Damon, as Jason Bourne (though at the end of this episode it’s revealed that his true name is David Webb and he was born April 15, 1971 in Missouri), who at the start of The Bourne Identity found himself being rescued from a near-certain drowning in the Mediterranean Sea with no idea what his name is, what he does for a living or anything else — until circumstances, including the discovery of the number for a secret Swiss bank account stored on his person, put him in the center of various international intrigues and let him know that at least in his “Bourne identity” he’s a contract killer for Treadstone, an unauthorized program within the CIA that takes out various people, including national leaders, whose continued existence could be inconvenient for the U.S. in general or the CIA in particular. The character of Jason Bourne was created in the 1980’s by pop thriller writer Robert Ludlum, and was brought to the screen for the first time in a 1988 TV-movie with Richard Chamberlain as Bourne and a plot line that (at least according to various posters) stuck far closer to Ludlum’s novel (which I’ve never actually read) than the 2002 film with Damon.

Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the script for the 2002 Bourne Identity with William Blake Heron, got sole screenwriting credit for this one and said he wanted to do a “re-imagining” of Ludlum’s novel rather than a direct adaptation. What that appears to have meant is Gilroy basically threw out Ludlum’s plot and wrote his own, though he shoehorned in whatever incidents and situations from Ludlum’s original would work in telling his own tale. At the last minute Universal brought in another screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, to do a full rewrite, and though they didn’t officially use Helgeland’s script the director, Paul Greengrass, substituted a lot of Helgeland’s scenes for Gilroy’s during the actual shoot. Having watched other movies involving Tony Gilroy — including the two films he’s directed, Michael Clayton (2007) and Duplicity (2009) — I suspect that what Greengrass wanted from Helgeland’s script that he wasn’t getting from Gilroy’s was plot coherence and cutting down the number of reversals so the final film would make sense. Also, unlike the various James Bond films — which were more like old-fashioned TV series episodes which each told a self-contained story with just key characters, not plots or situations, carrying over — The Bourne Supremacy is a direct sequel to The Bourne Identity. It begins in Goa, India, where Jason Bourne and his lover Marie (Franka Potente, who gets second billing to Damon even though she’s killed in the first 15 minutes — aw, c’mon, was that really that much of a surprise?) are hiding out in hopes of living a life together under the radar and avoiding the attentions of the bad guys, both inside and outside the CIA, who want to kill him. Unfortunately, Bourne spots a car and its driver that look out of place in Goa, and he correctly reasons that someone has traced him and sent a hired assassin to take him out, and there’s a car chase (indeed the entire movie is basically a series of car chases!) in which Bourne and Marie attempt to outrun a modern Western sedan in one of those little Indian personal vehicles. They’re ultimately forced off a bridge (another recurring motif in the film) and, because he had her switch places with him and take over the wheel while their car was moving, she takes the bullet meant for him and there’s an oddly romantic scene between the two of them underwater before Bourne is able to save himself but unable to rescue her.

Bourne immediately goes off on a worldwide chase involving such locations as Berlin, Germany and Amsterdam, The Netherlands (the name of the country each city is in is clearly specified in the subtitles, as if the filmmakers were assuming American movie audiences are so geographically illiterate they need that extra information; Charles and I still get a kick ouf of the title in Mission: Impossible III which identified a key sequence as taking place in “Shanghai, China”!), and he’s chased throughout by a dedicated but honest woman CIA agent named Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, who delivers the film’s best performance; powerful and authoritative, she puts Matt Damon to shame where acting chops are concerned, which isn’t that big a surprise), who’s out to kill Bourne because the information she’s received is that he’s a rogue agent who’s already killed two people in Berlin, and because an attempt to plant two bombs to blow up part of Berlin’s electrical system (which failed when one of the bombs didn’t go off) reveals Bourne’s fingerprints on the dud bomb. (Later we’re asked to believe the prints were faked, but we’re never told how.) There are periodic flashbacks showing Bourne being trained by the former head of Treadstone, Conklin (Chris Cooper, uncredited), who was killed at the end of The Bourne Identity but reappears here as a sort of ghost haunting Bourne’s memories. The flashbacks show Bourne being sent on his first killing assignment: to knock off Neski, a reform-minded member of Russia’s parliament who wants to take on the corrupt oligarchs who grabbed control of Russia’s energy industry when the Soviet Union was falling apart and its state-owned enterprises were being subjected to fire-sale privatizations. (The use of Russian oligarchs as villains in this film dates it — the power of the oligarchs seemed unassailable until Vladimir Putin started having them arrested and either tried, murdered extrajudicially or driven into exile, and one reason Putin is so popular among his own people is he broke the power of these crooks who were strangling the Russian economy — though according to Gilroy’s script would have seemed even more dated: 13 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union he turned in a script that described it as still a going concern!)

It turns out that Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), a CIA official who was Conklin’s immediate superior, was in bed with one of the oligarchs and had made a deal that included eliminating Neski and his wife — the scene was staged to make it look like a murder-suicide — and arranging a huge contract for the oligarch’s company in exchange for a $150 million bribe. We learn this about halfway through the film when a CIA agent named Danny Zorn (Gabriel Mann) discovers that a CIA official is doing a corrupt deal with one of the oligarchs and reports it to Abbott — not realizing that Abbott is the CIA official involved — and Abbott coolly and methodically strangles him, leaving behind yet another corpse whose existence he can blame on Bourne. It all comes to a head in yet another spectacular car chase, in which Bourne finally runs down and kills Kirill (Karl Urban, who quite frankly I thought was considerably hotter-looking than Matt Damon!), the assassin hired by the oligarch with Abbott’s connivance to kill Bourne and who had murdered Marie (ya remember Marie?) in the opening sequence. The Bourne Supremacy was one of those sequelae which doesn’t really put a different spin on the original but simply delivers more: more action sequences (director Greengrass deliberately shot most of the finale with hand-held cameras to make it look more realistic, as if what we were seeing was bits and pieces of action captured by civilians with smartphones — though modern-day smartphones didn’t exist in 2004, and as in The Bourne Identity every scene with computers in it is instantly dated the moment we see the cathode-ray monitors all the computers are hooked up to), more corpses (according to, the body count in this one is nine, one more than The Bourne Identity), more uncertain loyalties.

About the only thing it doesn’t deliver that the first film did is a love interest for the hero — he singles out Nicky (Julia Stiles), Pamela’s assistant, for his contact when he briefly offers to turn himself in (or at least pretends to), and there’s one highly charged scene with Neski’s daughter Irena (Oksana Akinshina), but no one for Jason Bourne to romance and then consign to the usual fate of a Bond or Bourne girl. As I wrote about The Bourne Identity, based on the evidence of the films Robert Ludlum seemed to be trying to create an intelligence character midway between Ian Fleming and John le Carré; he wanted a serious backstory and at least something of the gritty realism of le Carré’s depiction of espionage, but he also wanted a hero who would satisfy the action-adventure audience by getting into a lot of scrapes and managing hair’s-breadth escapes from them. The tumbled state of Bourne’s psyche — the still yawning gaps in his knowledge of who and what he is — is the most persuasive part of the Bourne mythos, and it’s one in which Matt Damon’s limitations as an actor, particularly the oddly impassive gaze with which he looks on just about everything (more than one contributor noted that throughout The Bourne Supremacy, the only time we see Damon smile is in an old photo of himself and Marie together in happier days), actually serve him. By seeming so clueless about what sort of character he’s playing, Damon gets across that he’s portraying someone who doesn’t quite know who he is, either! More incisive filmmakers could have made considerably more out of Bourne’s crises of identity (the way Alfred Hitchcock did with Cary Grant’s lead character in North by Northwest, who knew who he was but had no idea how he found himself enmeshed in the middle of a major espionage plot), but the Bourne series as we have it (at least judging by the initial two —there was a third in the original sequence, The Bourne Ultimatum, and after a one-off with The Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner as Bourne, Matt Damon returned to the role for a recent film called Jason Bourne that just got issued on Blu-Ray and DVD) is a moderately entertaining romp through spy-movie clichés that misses greatness by a long shot but delivers the goods for its intended audience.