After the grueling experience that was making The Bourne Identity (2002), Matt Damon was understandably wary about reprising the role of Jason Bourne. However, the film’s substantial box office success meant that the studio was eager to crank out a sequel and brought their leading man back into the fold with the promise of a new director after Doug Liman managed to alienate almost everyone on the first film. Paul Greengrass, director of the critically-acclaimed Bloody Sunday (2002) came on board taking up where Liman left off by adopting the same loose, hand-held camerawork and cranking up the intensity, especially with the action sequences, to the detriment of some that felt the herky-jerky movements resulted in motion sickness. Regardless, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) was a hit both critically and commercially, outperforming Identity.
Bourne (Matt Damon) and Marie (Franka Potente) have gone off the grid by taking refuge in India and this gives him time to sort through his fragmented memories and feverish nightmares. But, as is always the case with these kinds of films, our hero can’t stay hidden for long and trouble finds him. Meanwhile, a top-secret government deal in Berlin goes bad. Two agents are assassinated by Russian bad guys who steal $3 million and files that pertain to the whereabouts of Bourne. Greengrass ups the stakes right from the get-go as he has Bourne framed for the agents’ deaths and the stolen money and has an assassin (Karl Urban) track him and Marie down. An exciting car chase ensues that leaves Bourne alone and putting on him on the run again. This makes him dangerous as he has nothing holding him back so he can focus entirely on finding out who wants him dead and sift through the remnants of Operation Treadstone from the first film.
One of the first things that becomes obvious while watching this film is how its look harkens back to 1970s American cinema. Director Paul Greengrass utilizes the gritty, realistic look of his previous film, the powerful Bloody Sunday, with a lot of hand-held camerawork and snap zooms to give a you-are-there rush of adrenaline and urgency to the action sequences. In the car chases, Greengrass often places the camera right in the vehicle so that it is almost like we are riding along with Bourne, trying to piece together his fragmented past. In particular, the first chase in India is like The French Connection (1971) by way of Calcutta. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay wastes no time getting into it. We’re not 15 minutes into the film and Bourne is being chased by a mysterious and ruthless Russian assassin. It is this intense, no-nonsense pacing that propels this film so that one barely notices the two-hour running time.
Matt Damon plays Bourne with a quiet determination and intensity. It’s a surprisingly minimalist performance devoid of self-conscious tics and proves that his performance in the first Bourne film was no fluke. Bourne is not some invincible, super-soldier, but a tortured man trying to rebuild his past and his identity. He doesn’t kill unless absolutely forced to. And yet, he is certainly a man of action, capable of going from an inert, passive figure to one full of explosive action in a heartbeat. Supremacy sheds more light on his past as he’s haunted by a job where he killed a Russian politician and his wife. Damon does a nice job of portraying a man coming to terms with the fact that he is a killer. Bourne also comes to terms with the notion that what was just another mission for him forever changed the life of a young woman who was made an orphan because he killed her parents. It is an important part of the humanizing of Bourne as he sheds his past of being a detached assassin to someone trying to redeem himself. He tracks down people like Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), introduced in Identity as a handler to the Treadstone assassins, that can provide him with pieces of his past so that he confronts it and understand what he was in order to change who he is in the present.
The primary bone of contention that critics had with The Bourne Supremacy was how Greengrass films the action sequences. There is an impressively staged fight scene between Bourne and another Operation Treadstone survivor in Munich that is dizzyingly claustrophobic thanks to extensive hand-held camerawork that dives right into the chaos. It is memorable not only for its jarring brutality but also for Bourne’s skill with a rolled-up magazine that he uses to defend himself against a rather large knife. Greengrass’ camera flies around the tight confines of this room, dragging us along for this visceral, almost primal sequence. He treads a fine line between being edgy and incoherent, but knows just how far to push it – something that the countless imitators didn’t always achieve. This approach drew criticism for being too fragmented and disorienting, making it difficult to see what was happening but I think it was Greengrass’ attempt to put the audience right in the middle of the action and to experience the sudden and brutal nature of how quickly these guys fight.
Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy is an interesting character in that initially it appears as if she will be an antagonist like Conklin in The Bourne Identity, but when she’s assigned to investigate the Berlin job she uncovers the existence of Treadstone and this brings her up against Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), the operation’s caretaker and the man who also mothballed it. She’s no dummy and quickly figures out its nature, what Conklin was up to and Bourne’s role, which, in a nicely executed scene, quickly recaps the events of Identity for those who haven’t seen it. Over the course of Supremacy, she shows indications of sympathy towards Bourne’s plight that are developed further in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Allen’s scenes with Cox are interesting as they are often fused with tension as Landy uncovers the secrets of Treadstone while Abbott, clearly uncomfortable with his dirty laundry being aired, tries to cover his ass, which makes for some heated exchanges between the two as they butt heads.
The Bourne Supremacy gives more screen-time to the character of Nicky Parsons. Landy brings her along because of what she knows, but Nicky ends up playing a crucial role when Bourne confronts her, asking questions about the operation. Stiles was an up and coming movie star in the late 1990s with films like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), but had dropped off the mainstream radar by the mid-2000s. It is nice to see her pop up in the Bourne films even if she isn’t give much to do initially.
The Bourne Supremacy was based loosely on the 1986 best-selling novel of the same name by Robert Ludlum. Universal Pictures offered screenwriter Tony Gilroy $3 million to write the screenplay and he agreed, but only if it wasn’t a repeat of The Bourne Identity. Gilroy used a plot point from the novel – Marie is kidnapped and held ransom, forcing Bourne out of hiding – as the impetus for the sequel. The screenwriter came up with the idea of taking Bourne on “what amounts to the samurai’s journey, this journey of atonement,” said producer Frank Marshall. Gilroy didn’t want to make a revenge movie because “Bourne killed people and he doesn’t start the movie with a clean slate. There’s a lot of blood on his hands.” He decided to make Bourne a reluctant murderer and that he should suffer for his crimes. To this end, Gilroy envisioned Supremacy as “The Searchers of action films,” but was upset that Greengrass came in and placed an emphasis on action and not Bourne’s atonement.
Next, the producers had to find a new director that would have an affinity for the subject matter. Gilroy recommended that Marshall watch Bloody Sunday, directed by Paul Greengrass. It was a gritty recreation of the 1972 peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland that ended in violence. The producers were impressed with the film’s immediacy and sense of realism. Greengrass liked The Bourne Identity and how it “married an independent sort of feel with a mainstream Hollywood sensibility.” He flew to Prague and met with actor Matt Damon and they talked about the character of Bourne. Greengrass said of the character: “I think this film is not so much about a man who’s lost his memory, although that is part of it – but it’s more about what happens when you’ve recovered your memory and realized that you’re actually a bad man.”
Damon spent months doing personal and combat training including special firearm instruction in order to portray a trained assassin. The actor worked with a SWAT expert in Los Angeles so that when Bourne first picks up a gun in the film “it needs to look like an extension of his arm,” Damon said. He and Greengrass got along right away with the actor happy to have a director “who was putting you first and saying, ‘Be as natural and real and honest as you can and it’s our job to capture it rather than yours to adjust for the sake of my shot.’ That’s the thing an actor wants to hear.” The actor had no problem doing most of his own stunts, but was apprehensive doing an underwater scene where Bourne’s car goes crashing into a river. “I didn’t want to do that at all,” Damon said and so he worked with a diving instructor a couple times a week for a month in order learn how to relax underwater without an oxygen mask and eventually be able to do simple tasks like tying a shoe. Still, after one day of shooting under water, he “woke up probably four times gasping for breath, thinking I was drowning. It was terrible.”
Principal photography began on the streets of Moscow then moved to Berlin with the city’s former eastern sector doubling for the streets of the Russian capital and finally ending in Goa, India. Producer Patrick Crowley wanted the transition from locations to mirror Bourne’s arc “from lush, tropical and warm to more progressively cool, steely, blue, then finally to grays.” To depict the visceral car chases, the production utilized a high-speed, low center of gravity, chassis replacement stunt driving camera platform that was piloted by a stunt driver from a moveable cockpit, which allowed all kinds of camera placement around the vehicle.
The Bourne Supremacy enjoyed most positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “That Matt Damon is able to bring some poignancy to Jason Bourne makes the process more interesting, because we care more about the character.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Where most Hollywood action movies, edited within an inch of their lives, use split-second leaps and flashes as visual jolts to camouflage holes, The Bourne Supremacy knows what it’s doing. Its relentless speed not only puts you in Jason’s shoes by suggesting the adrenaline rush of a fugitive who has no time to look around, but also suggests Jason’s quick thinking.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “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.”
USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “As fine a job as Doug Liman did on Bourne Identity, Greengrass gives Bourne Supremacy a dynamism and edgy quality closer in spirit to a gritty European thriller than a summer action blockbuster.” The Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, “There are all sorts of pleasures to be had in this summer bauble, but the most unexpectedly resonant is the sight of this boyish face frozen in a mirror as he finally grasps what he did once upon a time.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Thomson wrote, “Supremacy feels sleek, elegant and stripped down. And its straight-ahead plotting, low-tech action sequences and narrative efficiency make effortless mockery of the James Bond franchise.”
The people behind the Bourne franchise are smart and willing to take chances. They cast an atypical action hero with Matt Damon, surrounded him with an eclectic cast that mixed Hollywood and internationally known stars (with the likes of Julia Stiles, Brian Cox and Karl Urban) and hired independent filmmakers like Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass against type to direct, letting them put their own unique stamp on their respective films. Ultimately, The Bourne Supremacy is all about the title character making amends for his past. There is a scene where he confronts the woman, whose parents he killed, that is rich in understated emotion as Bourne takes responsibility for his actions and tells her what really happened. It’s a great way to end the film as Greengrass eschews the cliché of a climactic action sequence (which happens before this scene) in favor of a more poignant one as Bourne atones for one of his many sins while also setting things up for the next installment.
The Bourne Supremacy Production Notes. Universal Pictures. 2004.
Carter, Kelly. “Director to the Manner Bourne.” Los Angeles Times. July 18, 2004.
Max, D.T. “Twister.” The New Yorker. March 16, 2009.
Rebello, Stephen. “Playboy Interview: Matt Damon.” Playboy. December 13, 2012.