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Photograph by Jasin Boland

Damon Seed: 'The Bourne Supremacy' is fast and furious, but it's more about building Matt Damon as a brand-name spy—a sort of Gen X James Bond—than anything else.

Bourne Again

'The Bourne Supremacy' is more marketing strategy than movie

By Richard von Busack

Maybe the Jason Bourne series is more admirable as an act of franchising that moviemaking. When Robert Ludlum gave his spy Jason Bourne that "JB" name (a name that sounded so much like James Bond) it was an attempt to link his licensed-to-kill agent with a far more famous one.

Dozens of producers have tried to pick up where Ian Fleming left off. The Bourne movies, taking a novel tactic, angled for a younger audience. Bond sold his fans on jets, luxury hotels and chandeliers. The locations in The Bourne Supremacy are budget tropical paradises or city train stations; Bourne's territory is more Lonely Planet than Michelin Guide. Even when The Bourne Supremacy has a few scenes in Berlin's legendary Grand Hotel—now called the "Westin Grand"—we see it as an ordinary place; cavernous, bland and, thanks to the aesthetics of this movie, dim and dark. It's fit less for Bond than for a convention of podiatrists.

The plot of The Bourne Supremacy has plenty of velocity and not many surprises. Reluctant assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still amnesiac, and plagued with nightmares. He's staying with his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) in Goa, on the Indian Ocean beach. A hit man comes gunning for Bourne, who is forced to return to Europe to confront his former bosses from the Treadstone project. As Bourne's former supervisor Brian Cox says, Treadstone was "black on black." He means that Bourne used to kill other governments' killers, a plan that worked until "it all went sideways." A CIA investigator (Joan Allen) pokes around in the ashes of Treadstone, after Bourne's fingerprints were found in the aftermath of a burglary that left two agents dead. As she tries to make sense of the case, Bourne arrives in Berlin to hunt his hunters. By coincidence, he's in the city where he made his very first hit as a novice agent.

The supporting cast is faultless; Allen, playing a figure of firm authority, had the inspiration to lipstick it up and let her hair down; she goes against the usual grain of the part of married-to-her-job government-agent. Cox, as usual, looks like all the seven deadly sins incarnate, a less scrupulous Dick Cheney. As for Damon, he's still the Inscrutable Hulk, baby-faced and lumbering.

This kind of a thriller is a machine anyway. It's essentially all about how quickly an agent can blow up a safe-house with a yanked gas pipe and a magazine stuffed into a toaster. Or how quickly we can read the Cyrillic lettering on a Russian passport and realize our next destination is Moscow.

Director Paul Greengrass previously wrote and directed a classic of neodocumentary, the Irish film Bloody Sunday. He shoots this efficient spy entertainment so briskly, it's as if it's being run at double time. It's fast, but it misses spots. The film's rich with locations, but you're whisked through them. The advantage of Greengrass' extensive use of hand-held camera is that you don't know when the violence is going to break out. It's an old custom of action film to cut to the hand-held cam whenever the fight scene's about to start. Sometimes the cut is so obvious, it's as if the director fired a starter pistol. Maybe the intention here was to make a spy film like Steven Soderbergh would do it—tougher, immediate, off the cuff. But Soderbergh doesn't precisely do hand-held alone; it's that he sometimes leaves the counterweights off the camera, letting it seem to float a little. The difference is like riding on an airline in calm skies, vs. turbulence. And The Bourne Supremacy is so whirly, they ought to hand out Dramamine at the box office. Stinting the romance in the name of realism, The Bourne Supremacy is far more logical than Bond... and somehow, not nearly as much fun.

The Bourne Supremacy (PG-13, 108 min.), directed by Paul Greengrass, written by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, photographed by Oliver Wood and starring Matt Damon and Joan Allen, plays countywide.

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From the July 28-August 4, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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