I couldn’t begin to guess how many separate shots make up a standard thriller, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are twice as many in The Bourne Supremacy. The director, Paul Greengrass, employs handheld cameras and shoots everything that happens — a car crashing off a bridge, an assassin strolling through a hotel lobby — from a dozen angles at once, arranging the images into what looks like a chain reaction of jump cuts.
Except that the movie, as breathless as it is, never leaps too far out of the moment. It surrounds the moment, in all its adrenaline and chaos. It immerses us in the emotional thick of the action.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), the amnesiac CIA assassin, is in the thick of it as well. As he hides out in India with Marie (Franka Potente), his lover and savior, he spots a potential predator. It’s a corny suspense moment (how could Bourne know that this guy is after him?), yet it’s staged with such tossed-off sinister flair that it sucks you right in. Based, like its predecessor, on a Robert Ludlum novel, ”The Bourne Supremacy” is a conventionally heightened series of escapes and clashes and hide-and-seek gambits, yet the way the film has been made, nothing that happens seems inevitable — which is to say, anything seems possible. There’s a word for that sensation. It’s called excitement.
Two years ago, Doug Liman, of ”Swingers” fame, directed ”The Bourne Identity” and proved that he could craft an action sequence as dandy as the next megabucks auteur. Yet the film was structured around the mystery of Bourne learning who he was — and the more he discovered about himself, the less interesting he became. Damon played Bourne with almost too much pleading humanity; he was a killer searching for redemption in his past. In ”The Bourne Supremacy,” Bourne, who now knows that he’s a government assassin, gets framed for murder during a sabotaged special op, which sets his former CIA bosses on the hunt for him.
As he bounds from Berlin to Naples to Amsterdam to Moscow, he’s tracked by Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), the feisty Cold Warrior, as well as a new character, agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who Bourne, in a terrific scene, holds directly in his rifle sights. He is also targeted by the Russian gangster who framed him. From the outset, Bourne is in too much hot water to worry about ”who he is,” and though he’s haunted by flashbacks to a mysterious mission, Damon plays him as a shell running on instinct, with a wasted, nearly sociopathic edge.
The whirring Damon mind, tucked beneath the actor’s aging-choirboy look, is a magnetic and fascinating machine. He has a singular ability to act fervently preoccupied yet casually focused on whatever’s in front of him, and that serves him brilliantly in a thriller like this one, which sees threats in every car and pedestrian and hotel room. He’s a tightly wired image of grace under the pressure of awareness. Each shot in The Bourne Supremacy, no matter how quick, carries a new perception, a new sliver of information, and that mirrors the way Bourne thinks — with his nerve endings extended, at once frayed and fully alive. Even the fights have an ominous unpredictability. In the first film, Bourne slipped into robotic martial-arts mode. Here, he’s clawing for his life.
We’re used to thrillers that jack up the action, but Greengrass, who made the extraordinary, you-are-there Irish docudrama ”Bloody Sunday” (2002), isn’t a hyperactive technician. He’s a virtuoso of realism — an artist using his gifts to tap the inner life of pulp fiction by staging it with an ingenious trickery and psychological cunning. A movie like ”The Bourne Supremacy” plays according to genre rules, yet it lures us into the illusion that the characters aren’t being protected by a hermetic, morally tidy action-adventure world. They’re daredevils in our world. That’s why the movie’s final car chase is so spectacular. As Bourne and his nemesis race through a Moscow tunnel, every hairpin turn and shred of ripped metal feels sensationally random — and gripping.
It would be a stretch to say that ”The Bourne Supremacy” has a hint of topical urgency. Though set well after the end of the Cold War, it’s rooted in the relatively stable relationship between the United States and Russia. These days, Hollywood wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet has there ever been a greater need for a tensile, journalistic thriller-drama that dared to confront the thorny and terrifying conflicts that now rule our world? Based on ”The Bourne Supremacy,” I’d wager that Paul Greengrass has the fervor, the immediacy, maybe the vision to make that movie.