On The Bourne Surpremacy

Following The Bourne Identity is The Bourne Surpremacy, with the same name as Robert Ludlum’s novel, the plot is entirely different. Like Salt, there is Cold War influence to the plot. According to the Den of Geek article, “Crossing the line movie car chases: The Bourne Supremacy“:

In conjunction with our chums at EA – and to mark the impending release of Need For Speed Rivals – we’re continuing our look at crossing the line movie car chases, with Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy. Remember – we want you to vote for your favourite, and we’re going to put on a big screen showing of the winner on November 21st.

The film

Injecting a much needed shot of adrenaline into the spy thriller genre, 2002’s The Bourne Identity was tense and tautly-directed, and despite its somewhat fraught production, gave Universal Pictures a major hit. With Matt Damon in the lead as amnesiac ex-agent Jason Bourne, the film had some great action sequences, not least a show-stopping car chase through Paris, with the hero making his escape from the police in a Mini Cooper.

When director Paul Greengrass clambered aboard for the 2004 sequel, replacing the outgoing Doug Liman, the intensity of the automotive action was pushed further. With a background in journalism and documentary-making before he became a film director, Greengrass brought a real sense of immediacy to his action sequences, lending The Bourne Supremacy a verite style which spread to a legion other movies in the years after.

Arguably the most thrilling segment of the film, The Bourne Supremacy’s Moscow car chase is a perfectly-paced exercise in stunts, editing and choreography. Rightly winning industry awards for the quality of its execution, it’s one of the most nail-biting chases of the past decade.

The rivalry

From the beginning, Russian agent Kirill (Karl Urban) has been established as Bourne’s nemesis. Having already attempted to kill our hero once – and leaving his girlfriend Marie dead in the process – Kirill remains a constant threat, and as the film’s events play out, we’re waiting for the pair to meet again.

That meeting finally occurs in Moscow, where Bourne, having been shot in the shoulder by Kirill, makes his escape in a stolen yellow taxi. Kirill, in a Mercedes G-Class SUV, is in hot pursuit, and a cat-and-mouse chase ensues through the congested, chilly streets of Moscow.

The driving

From the off, poor old Bourne is established as the David to Kirill’s Goliath. Already at a disadvantage from the bullet in his shoulder, Bourne’s hampered further by the fragile-looking taxi he’s been lumbered with (a Volga 3310, fact fans). Kirill’s Merc is a veritable tank by comparison, and capable of taking repeated collisions while bits of Bourne’s taxi are flying off all over the place.

What makes this scene so exciting is that, unlike so many other movie car chases, where the drivers often make perfectly-judged decisions with split-second timing, both Bourne and Kirill repeatedly clip (or even smash into) other cars on the road. Sure, they’re both highly-trained and skilled drivers, but like any human being in a situation like this, they can’t possibly account for every eventuality.

Bourne’s constant scrapes and collisions with other vehicles not only adds to the scene’s realism, but also gives it an almost gladiatorial edge; this isn’t so much a chase as a fight sequence that happens to include cars. What’s more, having Bourne drive such a flimsy, un-macho car as the yellow taxi is a storytelling masterstroke; as with the little red mini in The Bourne Identity, it’s hard not to wince after each panel-wrecking collision.

Crossing the line

Somehow, Bourne’s plucky little taxi keeps ploughing on through the Moscow traffic, with our hero’s skills helping him to stay one step ahead of Kirill – witness, for example, the way he uses the protection of a big green articulated bus to provide himself with a few seconds’ head start. But from the very beginning, it’s obvious that Kirill’s Merc is the faster and more solid of the two vehicles, and it’s in the gloom of a three-lane tunnel that the pursuit takes on an even more deadly edge.

In his desperation to stay ahead of Kirill, Bourne swings his taxi into the middle lane, clipping the front of an innocent civilian’s car and sending it crashing into the tunnel wall. Swerving over to the left hand lane, he skims the rear of another car, leaving it spinning in his wake.

We can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for these random drivers, who were probably just heading home after a long day at work. But at the same time, it’s just another example of Bourne making last-second judgements and not quite getting the timing right – again, giving the whole scene a sense of edge-of-the-seat realism.

Besides, it’s Kirill who establishes himself as the villain here. Bourne may be raising the insurance premiums left right and centre, but at least he’s not deliberately trying to hurt anyone. Kirill, on the other hand, starts letting off shots from his pistol with abandon, even when there’s a civilian vehicle between his Merc and Bourne’s taxi.

Fortunately, Bourne’s cunning and  superior driving ability prevails against the superior acceleration and build quality of Kirill’s Merc. As an exchange of fire gives way to some brutal side swiping, the two vehicles spin around, with the taxi eventually ploughing along with the Merc sliding in front of it at 90 degrees.

Kirill, having watched far too many Terminator movies, is so fixed on trying to shoot Bourne between the eyes that he doesn’t realise that he’s about to be shoved directly into a concrete divider – that is, until it’s far too late.

As the Merc smashes into the divider with a steel-rending crunch, effectively becoming a buffer for Bourne’s frail little taxi, the chase reaches its abrupt climax; Mercedes may build their cars to last, but not to survive a high-speed crash into a concrete pillar. Bourne emerges victorious, while Kirill sits in the shattered remains of his SUV, still alive but with his racing career very much over.

Greengrass’ direction is top-notch throughout The Bourne Supremacy, but nowhere is his skill more evident than here. As with any chase scene, it’s so effective because the dramatic stakes have already been established – we know Kirill’s a deadly menace, and we know that Bourne has a score to settle with the man who murdered his other half.

The chase’s technical execution is brilliant, too. The use of documentary-style shaking cameras may have been copied endlessly in other action movies, but it’s worth noting that, despite the visual chaos, we can always follow the thread of the action. Where other, lesser directors allow their action scenes to descend into so much shaky-cam mush – perhaps even using the technique to cover up flaws in the scene’s execution – we always know where the cars are in relation to each other. The documentary style adds impact rather than diminishes it; we feel every jarring impact.

Greengrass strips the typical Hollywood car chase of its usual glamour. The LA blue skies are replaced by an autumnal Moscow grey. Exotic sports cars are replaced by stock off-road vehicles and brittle Soviet taxicabs. By doing so, Greengrass, and his team of filmmakers and stunt drivers, gave a renewed sense of energy to a standard thriller staple.

According to Roger Ebert:

Jason Bourne obtained an identity in “The Bourne Identity” (2002), and the title of “The Bourne Supremacy” hints that he is not going to die — not with The Bourne Ultimatum still to go. He may not die even then, but live on like James Bond, caught in a time loop, repeating the same archetypal pattern again and again as his persona is inhabited by generations of actors.

Bourne may live forever, but the bad news is, people will always want to kill him; that is the defining reality of his life. The plot of “Supremacy,” like “Identity,” involves Bourne trying to survive the shadowy forces against him by using his awesome skills in spycraft, the martial arts, and running real fast. The movie works because he does these things well, and because Matt Damon embodies Bourne without adding any flashy heroism. A show-off would be deadly in this role.

The movie skillfully delivers a series of fights, stalkings, plottings and chases, punctuated by a little brooding. The best word for Bourne is “dogged.” After a brief illusion of happiness, he puts his head down and marches relentlessly ahead into the lairs of his enemies, not even bothering with disguises, because he’s using himself as bait. He always wears the same black shirt, pants and jacket, in scenes taking him from India to Italy to Germany to Russia (no one complains).

Bourne awakened from amnesia, we recall from the first movie, possessed of skills he did not even know he had, and with a cache of passports and other aids to survival, a cache left to him by — well, you remember. As “Supremacy” opens, he has gone as far away as he can go, dropping out with Marie (Franka Potente), the woman he met in the first adventure. They’re living on the beach in Goa, in southern India, happy as clams until Bourne spots a stranger who is wearing the wrong clothes, driving the wrong car and turning up in all the wrong places.

They’re still after him, or someone is. What is it about Bourne that makes his enemies prepared to spend millions to wipe him out? Sometimes he seems tantalizingly close to remembering. He suffers from Manchurian Candidate’s Syndrome, a malady that fills your nightmares with disconnected flashes of something dreadful that may or may not have happened to you. I saw “The Bourne Supremacy” on the very same day I saw the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” I was able to compare the symptoms, which involve quick cuts of fragmentary images.

The movie is assembled from standard thriller ingredients, and hurtles from one action sequence to another in India and Europe, with cuts to parallel action in Washington and New York. What distinguishes it is Bourne’s inventiveness. There’s a scene where he takes about four seconds to disable an armed agent and steal his cell phone contact list, and you’re thinking, this is a guy who knows what he’s doing. And how about the innovative use he finds for a toaster? It’s neat to see him read a situation and instantaneously improvise a response, often by using lateral thinking.

What Bourne doesn’t know about his pursuers, we find out as the movie intercuts with a plot involving a CIA agent named Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and her boss, Ward Abbott (Brian Cox). Julia Stiles plays a younger agent under Landy’s direction. They’ve found Bourne’s fingerprints at the scene of a murder in Berlin involving a CIA agent and his high-level criminal contact. But Bourne was in Goa at the time, so who’s framing him?

We have a pretty good idea, long before anyone else does, because the movie observes the Law of Economy of Character Development, which teaches us that when an important actor is used in an apparently subordinate role, he’s the villain. But the movie doesn’t depend on its big revelations for its impact; the mystery is not why Bourne is targeted, but whether he will die. He survives one lethal trap or ambush after another, leaping off bridges, crashing cars, killing assailants, and finally limping a little after a chase that should have killed him.

I have the weakness of bringing logic to movies where it is not required. There’s a chase scene where he commandeers a taxicab and leads a posse of squad cars through an urban version of Demo Derby. Although the film does not linger over the victims, we assume dozens of cars were destroyed and dozens of people killed or maimed in this crash, and we have to ask ourselves: Is this cost in innocent victims justified in the cause of saving Jason Bourne’s life? At the end of the film there is a heartfelt scene where he delivers an apology. If he ever goes back to Berlin, he’ll have to apologize to hundreds if not thousands of people, assuming a lynch mob doesn’t get to him first.

But I digress. Thrillers don’t exist in a plausible universe. They consist of preposterous situations survived by skill, courage, craft and luck. That Matt Damon is able to bring some poignancy to Jason Bourne makes the process more interesting, because we care more about the character. That the director, Paul Greengrass, treats the material with gravity and uses good actors in well-written supporting roles elevates the movie above its genre, but not quite out of it.

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5 thoughts on “On The Bourne Surpremacy

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