Bourne Supremacy, The: Greengrass Triumph

Cinema is a matter of style, and style is a moral fact.
Bernardo Bertolucci

My review begins with a quote from Bertolucci about style. Most discussions of The Bourne Supremacy have stressed the film’s striking visual style, its unparalleled rapid speed, without necessarily linking that style to the film’s distinctive concerns. Style is a moral and a political fact. The articulation of cinematic style doesn’t merely show the events of a narrative–it also creates them. By using a specific style coherently, a director shares with viewers his particular interpretation of the text.

Visual style has become more aggressive in Hollywood’s new thrillers and actioners, but it’s often an impersonal style that can be mechanically reproduced and imitated. Think of Michael Bay, the director of Bad Boys, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor. But this is certainly not the case of Paul Greengrass, the vanguard Irish director of The Bourne Supremacy. Greengrass’ previous, highly acclaimed drama, Bloody Sunday, was a dynamic recreation of one of the most tumultuous events in modern history, January 30, 1972, when a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, ended in a bloody massacre by the British police. Among other achievements, Bloody Sunday showed that Greengrass’ style had verisimilitude, edge, and immediacy.

But Greengrass is not just a skillful technician who knows where to place his camera; he’s a visionary filmmaker. In his hands, Bourne Supremacy, nominally a sequel to the 2002 hit, The Bourne Identity, is such a fresh and vigorous film that it feels like the beginning of a new franchise. Greengrass’ vision informs every element of the film, from his work with his actors, encouraging them to experiment with new ideas, to the particular way he uses lighting to accentuate the film’s mood. Bourne Supremacy demonstrates how visual style can match and enhance the film’s distinctive universe. By using an unconventional style, Greengrass has reinvented the intellectual spy film, the paranoid thriller. His innovative storytelling has pumped new life into the time-honored espionage thriller.

How It Happened?

In 2002, an unexpected hero was born in The Bourne Identity, the screen version of Robert Ludlum’s best-selling novel. That thriller featured a cast-against-type Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, a trained assassin trying to recover his memory while evading shadowy figures from his past. The film became Universal’s highest grossing domestic release and number one DVD/Video rental. Following this smash worldwide success, Universal greenlighted the second installment of Ludlum’s series, Bourne Supremacy, with Damon and most of the original cast.

So much in the world has changed since the publication of Ludlum’s books that the story needed to be updated. By transplanting Ludlum’s Bourne Supremacy from the Cold War setting to the Europe of the post-Wall collapse, the filmmakers have dusted off Ludlum’s hero, bringing him into the new millennium as a more contemporary character.

The first film, directed by Doug Liman, proved that the filmmakers could successfully take Bourne out of the Cold War and transport him into a 21st century, where black-and-white heroes no longer exist. But the second film needed a different, more radical and cooler story. As with Bourne Identity, the filmmakers borrowed a plot point from Ludlum’s story to serve as a springboard, a reason to get Bourne back in the fray.

It was screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s idea to turn Bourne into a man embarking on a samurai-like journey of atonement. Arguing that Bourne is already a killer with blood on his hands, Gilroy shifted the focus from an amnesia story about loss of identity to a morally existential tale of a man who knows who he is but does not want to be that person anymore. In other words, it’s a story about the consequences of Bourne recovering his memory, his realization that he’s a bad man, his struggle to deal with his newly regained conscience.

In defiance of the customary action formula, the movie doesn’t unfold as a standard revenge tale. To be sure, Bourne Supremacy does obey some action genre rules, but it creates the illusion that the narrative is not pre-determined, that the characters themselves may not be sure of the plot’s twists and turns and of their own fate. The action grows directly out of the characters and the story. The action is not just integrated into the film’s situations; it becomes the very essence of the film, its physical and moral fabric.

Drawing on Greengrass’ background as investigative reporter and documentarian, the new film also benefits from his status as a European outsider. Bourne Supremacy represents a happy marriage of an offbeat independent feel with a more mainstream Hollywood sensibility. Greengrass creates utterly realistic scenes that look as if they had been spontaneously shot. His sense of the camera as a participatory character in the saga suits Bourne’s globetrotting journey. His visual style matches the gritty settings and lack of customary Hollywood story beats.

Greengrass’ visual conception is congruent with the film’s shady, morally ambiguous world, a messy place that lacks stability and order. His restless camera is perfect to depict an untidy world in which threats are implicit in every stranger’s glance and in every “wrong number” phone call. Greengrass shoots the same scene from multiple perspectives, allowing the viewers to watch the same event from different angles, without telling them which is the right perspective. Greengrass places the viewers deep within a scene, then jumps ahead to another scene and drops the viewers right in the midst of it. The cutting, like the film’s tempo, is extremely swift. Greengrass stages pursuits and chases that get faster and faster.

With locales as diverse as Goa, Naples, Berlin, Moscow, and Washington D.C., Bourne Supremacy is one film that cannot be accused of looking like a touristy travelogue. Watch the skillfully executed chase scene in Moscow, a city that has been used before in actioners, but the way that Greengrass shoots and presents it changes our conception of the city.

Greengrass’ achievement is even more impressive considering that for most of the movie Bourne is alone; even when surrounded by other people, there’s hardly any verbal communication. A shrewd strategy is also used in the cat and mouse relationship between Jason Bourne and C.I.A. agent Pamela Landy (a new character, terrifically played by Joan Allen), who never knows his whereabouts. Greengrass turns routine C.I.A. procedural matters–computer screens and code names, telephone calls and conference rooms–into contests of will between Bourne and Landy.

The style also enhances Bourne as a screen hero, a man who has no identity beyond some physical skills and vague sense of guilt. Alternating the roles of the chaser and chased, the hunter and hunted, Bourne is cut off from the C.I.A as well as from himself. Yet his isolation, stoicism, and alienation turn him into a classic romantic American hero, a postmodern equivalent of the Western hero, operating alone and living by his inner code of ethics. Bourne also qualifies a tragic hero, doomed to a life of wandering because there’s no place he can call home.

An anomaly for a summer popcorn movie, Bourne Supremacy is an exciting thriller in which style and substance are co-dependent harmoniously.