Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne, Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac spy, in this sequel to Doug Liman’s surprise 2002 hit “The Bourne Identity,” but with distinctly diminishing returns. The second installment takes up a couple of years after the end of the first. As scripted by Tony Gilroy, one of the two writers of the initial picture, it begins with Bourne–who’d been fished from the drink with a couple of bullet holes in him but no memory–and Marie (Franka Potente)–the girlfriend whom he found, along with shards of his CIA assassin identity, in the previous film–holed up in India trying to avoid discovery by their enemies while he works at recovering the rest of his past. But their relative peace is short-lived; not only does somebody try to kill him, shooting Maria instead, but the same slimy fellow offs two CIA agents in Berlin and plants evidence pointing to Bourne as the killer. Naturally the hero seeks revenge for the death of his lover, but to do so he has to uncover what nefarious business is afoot. In the process he’s forced into a face-off against his old CIA colleagues, not only Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), one of his antagonists from “Identity,” but also Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), a starchy but principled agent intent on bringing Bourne in for supposedly killing her operatives in Berlin. Also on hand, rather briefly, is Nicky (Julia Stiles), the young operative from the first film who here takes on, quite unwillingly, the role of go-between (Chris Cooper, Bourne’s immediate boss in “Identity,” makes an even shorter reappearance here, as befits a dead man).
From beginning to end “The Bourne Supremacy” is essentially one long chase as Bourne pursues and is pursued on foot and by car, pausing occasionally to brood over clues to his past or to engage in a brutal one-on-one with an erstwhile colleague, an agent from another country, or a cop unfortunate enough to get in his way. It’s not a greatly different recipe from that of the first picture, but the results aren’t as tasty this time around, for a few obvious reasons. One is that the revelations that occur don’t come as great surprises–the most notable of them involve inter-agency skullduggery and post-Cold War corruption–and they’re telegraphed so far in advance that the mystery behind the plot never generates much suspense. A second is that Maria’s early disappearance leaves a considerable hole in things; Bourne’s growing relationship with her was an important part of the success of “Identity,” and this picture never fully recovers from her quick removal from the action. Finally, the change of directors proves a real disadvantage. Doug Liman’s use of the hand-held camera in “Identity” was subtle and sensitive, and his staging of the action scenes masterful. Here, however, Paul Greengrass goes overboard in both respects. Much of “Supremacy” is visually jittery, and the big macho moments are so pumped-up and jaggedly edited that they’re barely possible to follow, let alone appreciate. (The hand-to-hand combat Bourne has with a former CIA assassin in Munich is a prime example of the problem, as is the culminating car chase through Moscow, which ends up in a tunnel confrontation even more confusing than the one between Will Smith and the army of metallic men in “I, Robot.”) Greengrass’ edgy, hyperkinetic style worked beautifully in his documentary-style “Bloody Sunday,” but in this case it’s actually counterproductive. One other small point: when geographical entries are provided for scene changes, is it really necessary to add “New York” to “New York City” or “Russia” to “Moscow”? Do the filmmakers believe their audience is so dense that they won’t know what country they’re in?
Of course, there are strengths in “The Bourne Supremacy.” The locales are interesting, and Oliver Wood’s cinematography recaptures the gloomy, forbidding atmosphere he brought to its predecessor. The cast does what it can with the material, which, however, isn’t often much. Damon walks and runs (the two things he’s most called upon to do) more than adequately, he’s apparently adept in the fight scenes (although the whiplash editing obscures it), and he smolders well–Jason Bourne is not a very expressive fellow, after all. Cox is a practiced hand at smarmy villainy, and gives Abbott the malevolence the character requires. And Karl Urban projects the right note of snarling nastiness as a Russian assassin. Other good performers, however, are hamstrung by their roles. Allen’s considerable talents are employed to no better effect here than they were in “The Notebook,” and Potente has little to do apart from appearing concerned and then appearing dead. As for Stiles, she could have pretty much phoned in her brief performance; she’s very nicely costumed, though, and her hair looks great.
Ultimately, in a summer of outstanding sequels, “The Bourne Supremacy” falls short. Its advertising tagline is “They should have left him alone.” That’s supposed to refer to Bourne’s opponents in the picture, of course, but one could argue that it applies to the filmmakers, too. In this case once may very well have been enough; Jason should not have been re-Bourne.