"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, November 28, 2014

Film Critic Hall of Fame: J. Hoberman

Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum was the first book of film criticism that I read. They took a look at the rise of cult movies thanks to midnight screenings all over the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. My parents bought it for me at a bookstore in Toronto because of my newfound appreciation of David Lynch. Twin Peaks had premiered on television not long ago and I began seeking out everything he had directed. Midnight Movies devoted an entire chapter to his early work, in particular Eraserhead (1977), but it was the afterword where the two critics talked about Twin Peaks in relation to the midnight movie phenomenon that really stayed with me. Hoberman called the show, “the ultimate extension of the midnight movie aesthetic and went on to say:

Twin Peaks is reportedly extremely popular with college students but what’s more striking is its figurative and literal domestication of the midnight aesthetic. I think it’s significant that the network switched the show to Saturday night, which gives it a kind of generational hook. Where once you might have run off to see Night of the Living Dead at midnight now you can stay home and watch Twin Peaks.”

After reading that and absorbing his chapters on the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky and John Waters, I had to read more of Hoberman’s writing. It wasn’t easy as, at the time, he wrote for the Village Voice, a newspaper I did not have access to where I lived in Canada. Eventually, thanks to the Internet, I was able to get access to his film reviews and read them voraciously.

Hoberman originally wanted to be an avant-garde filmmaker, but found it to be “really hard and largely thankless.” He had been writing features for counterculture magazines when Richard Goldstein, arts editor for the Village Voice, invited him to contribute reviews of avant-garde and cult movies. His debut review was for Eraserhead on October 24, 1977 where he famously wrote, “Eraserhead’s not a movie I’d drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of Star Wars.” At the time, Hoberman was the third string writer after Andrew Sarris and Tom Allen. He remembers that at the time, he wasn’t “particularly concerned with Hollywood and I didn’t really see myself as a movie reviewer—more like someone happily toiling in the vineyard of film culture and getting paid for it.”

When Sarris was seriously ill in 1984, Hoberman temporarily filled in for him, reviewing his first Hollywood movie, the Clint Eastwood thriller Tightrope (1984). Sarris returned and Hoberman did such a good job that he was given more mainstream fare to review and “that’s the point at which I began to hate Steven Spielberg.” He became the Voice’s senior film critic in 1988 where he worked until 2012.

Hoberman’s approach to film reviewing is “as a form of journalism. You’re reporting on something, and you get to be much more subjective and playful than you would be if you were simply reporting a news story, but I think that you need to provide a certain amount of information and context.” One of the things the draws me to his writing is a willingness to go against the grain and defend a film that is universally panned by his counterparts. Case in point: he was one of the few mainstream critics to “get” Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). While most everyone else was calling it an incoherent mess he thought otherwise: “At once prestigious literary adaption and slapstick buddy flick, this is something like Fellini Cheech and Chong—this is a lowbrow art film, an egghead monster movie, a gross-out trip to the lost continent of Mu, a hilarious paean to reckless indulgence, and perhaps the most widely released midnight movie ever made.” In that same vein, Hoberman was one of the few American critics that defended Richard Kelly’s much maligned sci-fi opus Southland Tales (2006): “Why was the Kelly Code too much to take? Sensory overload is certainly a factor, but unlike Da Vinci [Code], Southland Tales actually is a visionary film about the end of times. There hasn’t been anything comparable in American movies since Mulholland Drive.”

Unlike say, Harlan Ellison or Jay Scott, two film critics who I have already examined on this blog, Hoberman is a more cerebral writer. To whit, in his review of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998): “Terrence Malick’s hugely ambitious, austerely hallucinated adaptation of James Jones’s 1962 novel – a 500-page account of combat in Guadalcanal – is a metaphysical platoon movie in which battlefield confusion is melded with an Emersonian meditation on the nature of nature.” Another thing I like about Hoberman’s writing style is his ability to come up with some really brilliant observations about a given film. For example, here’s a gem from his review of Ghost World (2001): “It’s smart enough to recognize that, as fleeting as adolescence may be, the world is haunted by the post-adolescent walking wounded. There’s an admirable absence of closure. As the title suggests, the movie is a place—or better, a state of being.”

As is always the case with any critic, I don’t see eye to eye with Hoberman on everything. His review of Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) saw him take a few digs at the director’s signature style:

“Mann rarely misses a chance to savor the brooding dusk from a skyscraper window, while an ongoing search for the audiovisual equivalent of purple prose, underscores the high drama with a bizarre mélange of Gregorian chants and world-music yodeling. At 155 minutes, The Insider may be pumped-up, but it’s rarely boring.”

Hoberman did go on to give Mann’s next film, Ali (2001) a mostly positive review, but I always get the feeling that he is kind of ambivalent towards Mann’s films, like he wants to like them, but always finds something wrong with them.

Hoberman tends to play it straight for most of reviews, but every so often he comes up with a memorable zinger like in his review of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975):

“Back in 1976, Barry Lyndon’s most problematic aspects was its blatant stunt casting—the equivalent today of using Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Moss to anchor something like The Charterhouse of Parma. Still young and beautiful, O’Neal (a TV heartthrob turned superstar with the mega success of Love Story in 1970) starts out a ridiculously po-faced dullard and eventually ‘matures’ into a stern-looking dolt. But Barry Lyndon is a movie that encourages the long view, and seen from the perspective of a quarter-century, the actor appears as a blank stand-in for himself, just a good-looking chess piece for Kubrick to maneuver around the board.”

I find that almost every film reviewer as a critical blindspot – a filmmaker or genre they just don’t like or don’t get. For Pauline Kael it was Kubrick, for Hoberman it is the Coen brothers. His main issue with their work is of the anti-Semitism he feels is rampant in films like Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991). This is a rather odd charge considering that Joel and Ethan Coen are in fact Jewish. In his grudgingly positive review of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), he lays out his problems with the Coens’ films:

“Although a robust disdain for their creatures is a given, it is when the Coens deploy explicitly Jewish characters that their glee turns hostile. The spectacle of the pathetic cringing Jew played by John Turturro on his knees and begging for his life in Miller’s Crossing was less antic than appalling. Turturro starred as another sort of Jew in Barton Fink, which set in 1941, staged a virtual death match between two then potent stereotypes—the vulgar Hollywood mogul and the arty New York communist—without any hint that their minstrel show battle royale was occurring at the acme of worldwide anti-Semitism.”

He then proceeds to concede that Llewyn Davis is an “almost affectionate send-up of the early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene, is certainly their warmest film in the 16 years since The Big Lebowski in part because, as in Lebowski, the lead actor—Oscar Isaac—inspires a sympathy beyond the constraints of his creators’ rote contempt.” In a backhanded complement, Hoberman finds Davis “something more than a cartoon. So is the movie, which is predicated on the Coens’ enthusiasm for its music that, particularly as sung by Isaac, is surprisingly affecting. Malice is tempered by fondness occasionally verging on admiration.” Wow, it actually sounded like he sort of, kind of liked it, despite his best efforts not to!

The Village Voice fired Hoberman on January 4, 2012 and he became the next casualty on a long line of prestigious critics that have been let go from newspapers and magazines. If his firing really stings it may be that it feels like the end of era. Not to worry, though, he still continues to write film reviews for the likes of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Guardian among others. He also has his own website where he archives his reviews and promotes his latest book. Hoberman remains a strong and vital critical voice in a field that is increasingly dominated by writers that lack the kind of skill and knowledge that he has accrued over the years.


Goldsmith, Leo. “An Interview with J. Hoberman.” Not Coming to a Theater Near You. April 22, 2011.

Peranson, Mark. “Film Criticism After Film Criticism: The J. Hoberman Affair.” Cinemascope. 2012.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Bourne Ultimatum

After two films with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) on the defensive and on the run, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) sees our hero going on the offensive and taking the fight to his handlers. Coming full circle not only thematically, but also on a production level – the film was born out of chaos as principal photography began without a completed screenplay – it managed to come out the other side with a coherent final product that endeared itself to both audiences and critics. Ultimatum not only avoids the dreaded third installment of a trilogy jinx (they are notoriously the weakest), but ends up being the strongest one of the series as Bourne gets some definitive answers to who he is and his past.

Ultimatum picks up right where The Bourne Supremacy (2004) left off with Bourne on the run in Moscow after being seriously injured in an exciting car chase with a fellow Treadstone assassin. Meanwhile, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), an investigative reporter with The Guardian, a British newspaper, is working on a story about Bourne and a top-secret CIA operation known as Blackbriar. Naturally, the agency finds out and puts Ross under surveillance in the hopes that Bourne will contact him, which he does, at a busy London train station.

Bourne’s rendezvous with Ross amidst the hustle and bustle of the train station is a nice homage to the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) as the two men are heavily scrutinized by all kinds of CIA surveillance. There is a lot of fun to be had watching Bourne masterfully evade all their manpower and hi-tech equipment in a wonderfully intense and insanely choreographed sequence that successfully ratchets up the tension as the CIA closes in. However, before Bourne can get Ross to reveal his source, an extremely efficient Blackbriar assassin (Edgar Ramirez) kills the journalist and disappears like a ghost.

Fortunately, Bourne takes Ross’ notes and figures out that the source is located in Madrid. During the course of his investigation, Bourne is reunited with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a CIA operative sympathetic to his plight. Within the agency, the man in charge of Blackbriar, CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) wants Bourne dead because he sees him as a dangerous liability while another agent, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), wants to take him alive because she doesn’t agree with Vosen’s methods. This results in some wonderfully testy bickering between the two actors as they argue over what to do about Bourne. The rest of Ultimatum plays out as a brilliantly staged cat and mouse game with Bourne turning the tables on his handlers.

This time around, David Strathairn is the veteran character actor enlisted to play the CIA honcho tasked to find and eliminate Bourne. Like Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity) and Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) before him, he has the gravitas to play a take-charge authority figure and part of the enjoyment of this film is watching Bourne constantly thwart Vosen’s plans. In Ultimatum, Landy is a more sympathetic figure as she wants to capture Bourne alive (unlike Vosen). As the film progresses and she learns more about what the United States government did to Bourne and others in Treadstone, she realizes that she can no longer be complicit in the CIA’s illegal activities. Nicky Parsons also undergoes significant development as she ends up helping Bourne and turns out to be a key figure in his past.

Paul Greengrass, who also directed Supremacy, is back behind the camera bringing his trademark, no-nonsense pacing and visceral, hand-held camerawork to Ultimatum. The film’s action sequences are the epitome of edgy intensity as the fight scenes are quick and as brutal as a PG-13 rating will allow. They are realistically depicted – after all, guys as well trained as Bourne don’t waste any time and know exactly how to bring someone down as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Like with the other Bourne films, Ultimatum also has exciting chases, including the police pursuing Bourne over rooftops in Tangiers while he’s chasing an assassin going after Nicky, and a crazy car chase through the busy streets of New York City. Greengrass and his stunt people upped the ante on the chases, most notably the sequence in Tangiers, which starts off with scooters in the busy streets and then after a car bomb goes off, along rooftops on foot. Greengrass’ kinetic camerawork is taken to the next level as we literally follow Bourne leaping through the air from one building to another.

The lo-tech versus hi-tech dichotomy is beautifully realized in all three Bourne films as symbolized in the way he kills the highly trained assassins sent to kill him. In The Bourne Identity (2002), it’s with a pen, in Supremacy it’s with a rolled up magazine and in Ultimatum it’s with a book. The films never make a big deal about it and even show how well Bourne can manipulate technology, but his best chance at survival is to MacGyver it and stay off the grid.

With the phenomenal success of The Bourne Supremacy, Universal Pictures persuaded screenwriter Tony Gilroy to write the first draft of The Bourne Ultimatum for a significant amount of money, but only under the conditions that he could leave after its completion and that he wouldn’t have to speak with director Paul Greengrass, who was also returning, and did not get along with the writer. According to Damon, “It’s really the studio’s fault for putting themselves in that position. I don’t blame Tony for taking a boatload of money and handing in what he handed in. It’s just that it was unreadable. This is a career-ender.”

After Gilroy left the project and a release date looming, Greengrass brought in four other writers including George Nolfi, Scott Z. Burns, and Tom Stoppard, the latter who said of his input: “Some of the themes are still mine—but I don’t think there’s a single word of mine in the film.” Amazingly, before the film’s release date, Gilroy arbitrated and lost to get sole credit. As a result, the filmmakers were writing the script as they were making the film over three continents in 140 shooting days. According to Damon, “There wasn’t a single day where we didn’t have new pages! The main issue was that a question was never answered: Why was Bourne here? … What Paul settled on was that it has to be a story about meeting his maker.”

The exciting chase through the streets of Tangiers was an homage to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966). It took 14 days to shoot with Bourne’s rooftop leap done by a stuntman jumping right behind Bourne while carrying a small, lightweight camera. According to second unit director and stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, he often allowed the stunt people to hold the cameras because “they’re not too freaked out about getting hit or sliding under something while holding a camera. Some of the best shots in Supremacy and Ultimatum are because the stunt guys were operating.” Once again, Greengrass applied an independent film aesthetic to a big studio movie budget or, as he put it, “one of the ways you do it is to try your luck and set the action in places where you can’t behave like a big movie … You’re forced to sort of be a bit like a student film and make it up as you go along, live on the land and shoot when people are around.”

The Bourne Ultimatum received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Greengrass’ direction: “He not only creates (or seems to create) amazingly long takes but does it without calling attention to them. Whether they actually are unbroken stretches of film or are spliced together by invisible wipes, what counts is that they present such mind-blowing action that I forgot to keep track.” In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Bourne is now very much a man alone, existentially and otherwise. Mr. Damon makes him haunted, brooding and dark. The light seems to have gone out in his eyes, and the skin stretches so tightly across his cantilevered cheekbones that you can see the outline of his skull, its macabre silhouette. He looks like death in more ways than one.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The Bourne Ultimatum is a spectacular windup toy of a thriller – a contraption made by an artist.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, “Damon lends an air of conscious integrity to the part, a quality of reflective introspection that acts as an amazingly effective ballast against the complete implausibility of his continued survival.”

However, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Greengrass cuts each action scene into agitated bits; but he can’t let fast enough alone. Could he please explain why, in the chat scenes, the camera is afflicted with Parkinson’s? The film frame trembles, obscures the speaker with the listener’s shoulder, annoys viewers and distracts them from the content of the scene.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “It’s not a movie; it’s a trip through a gun barrel at the head of a cloud of exploding gas, and you end up splattered against a wall, then sliding into the dust with the sound of the drums ringing in your head for hours.”

If Identity was about our hero escaping from his CIA handlers and Supremacy was about him figuring out why they are still after him, then Ultimatum is all about getting revenge on those responsible for messing up his life in the first place and figuring out, once and for all, his identity. What elevates Ultimatum (and the rest of the series) above, say, the Mission: Impossible movies, is that it is more than just an exciting thriller (although, it does work on that level). It is also has a sharp, political component in the form of a scathing critique of the CIA’s dirty little secrets. The series ultimately asks, what happens when a highly-trained and conditioned government operative questions what he does and why? How does he undo the programming that made him what he is and come to grips with what he’s done? This film answers these questions to a satisfying degree while also being very entertaining conclusion to the series.


Carnevale, Rob. “The Bourne Ultimatum – Paul Greengrass Interview.” indieLONDON. 2007.

Crabtree, Sheigh. “When He Calls ‘Action,’ He Means It.” Los Angeles Times. August 5, 2007.

Max, D.T. “Twister.” The New Yorker. March 16, 2009.

Nashawaty, Chris. “The Strong Violent Type.” Entertainment Weekly. August 6, 2007.

Rapkin, Mickey. “Tom Stoppard.” Time Out New York. October 18, 2007.

Thompson, Anne. “Greengrass Brings Auds Into Picture.” Variety. August 3, 2007.

Wallace, Amy. “Wicked Smaht.” GQ. January 2012.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Bourne Supremacy

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.