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Non-Review Review: The Bourne Supremacy

I have to admit that The Bourne Supremacy is the strongest of the Bourne films for me, even though fans of the series tend to forget it, snuggled as it is between The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum. The middle part of the trilogy is undoubtedly the most straight-forward, but that isn’t a weakness – it contains a well-motivated character arc for the character of Bourne while handling the themes of the series remarkably well, and still paying homage to all the plot devices that one associates with the espionage thriller. It isn’t preoccupied with setting anything in motion, nor in wrapping anything up, but that gives the movie much more freedom than the two that surround it.

Nobody said it would be a walk in the car park...

Warning: The next paragraph contains spoilers for the first twenty minutes of the film. You have been warned. You can skip it an pick up reading afterwards.

The one element of the film whcih does leave a bad taste in my mouth occurs approximately twenty minutes into the film, so I’m not sure if it qualifies as a spoiler, but I’ve flagged it as such, just in case. Basically the plot decides to kick Bourne into action by prompting him to avenge the death of Marie, whom he hooked up with during the last film. It renders the character the worst sort of plot device – a female killed in order to provide motivation to the male lead – and one that only seems to have occurred because the writer seemed to have no idea what to do with the character. I can accept that something was needed to spur Bourne to action, but the death of his loved one – and his anchor to humanity – is treated almost in an offhand fashion. The movie never really deals with the implication of killing off the one person that has tried to rehabilitate the former spy, and the temptation to give in to his darker impulses in her absence. Indeed, her death is just thrown in there because the movie demands a roaring rampage of revenge from the eponymous character.

You can start reading again now, I promise.

However, the plot development at least contributes to a greater character arc. One of my problems with The Bourne Identity is that it ends with Bourne pretty much as he began – he botched a mission because he didn’t want to be an emotionless killing machine, and then he tells his former employers that he doesn’t want to be an emotionless killing machine. Bourne telling the CIA to leave him alone was an anticlimax, if only because they should already have known he wanted to be left alone – and he never really did anything severe enough to make the warning particularly threatening, besides killing a handful of agents.

Here, Bourne has a far more progressive arc. He has to come to peace with the horrible actions he committed while working as a covert assassin – to face the consequences of the damage he has done, and to accept that he may never be able to make it right. He must also clear his name when he is framed for an assassination in Berlin – reclaiming his identity in a manner different from the way that he did in the original. And he must dismantle the organisation which turned him into such a remorseless killing machine. These three motivations serve to make Bourne a much more proactive protagonist than he was in the original – where he seemed only half-interested in discovering who he was and kinda gave up halfway, before spending the rest of the movie running from people trying to kill him.

Bourne scopes out a target...

Perhaps the best modern espionage stories concern the past coming back to haunt us, and that might be what makes Bourne a spy for the twenty-first century. The West is continually faced with the consequences of actions we have chosen to forget, which lead to a spiral of violence. Because we can’t acknowledge our past, we are left powerless in the present, as the impact of our actions and political meddling come home to roost.

Early on in the film, Bourne spots a hired assassin staking out his hideaway in India because everything about him is “just wrong” – his clothes, the car, the accent, the sunglasses, none of them fit together and simply look jumbled together. The movie offers a world that is “just wrong”, where the present and the past have mingled together to create something grotesque. Modern political intrigue and Cold War rivalries surround a sinister Russian oil baron, a combination of the two archetypes which define nostalgic spy stories (the Cold War) and modern espionage thrillers (the distribution of oil). Like Bourne’s memories, the past and present become jumbled and mixed up, as we follow a rogue American spy who killed a democratic campaigner and his rival, a member of the Russian Secret Servie who has embraced capitalism and sold his services to the higher bidder.

Karl Urban offers perhaps the series’ most powerful counterpoint to Bourne. Of course there were other hitmen in the original film and an extended fight scene with a rival in the final part of the trilogy (and a younger example), but here we get to see a man who has allowed his lawful authority to be used for corruption and vice. Bourne’s complicity was unknown to him, but the Russian Secret Service agent knows who signs his cheques. Perhaps he’s the man Bourne would have ended up as had he not decided to resist his orders – hiding inside a dank and dark nightclub while the sun shines outside. Bourne and the Russian are all but identical – in fact, at one point witnesses suggest Bourne’s black trenchcoat might be leather (it isn’t, but guess who is wearing a black leather trenchcoat and clothing similar to what Bourne wore in the original).

As with the original film, this is not a movie about ideology. Or maybe it is, but not a political one. Although some characters justify their actions by calling themselves “patriots”, all the bad guys are looking out for their own interests. One suspect is more worried about the fact that he’s “due to retire next year” than he is about the murder and mayhem that has ensued. Even retroactively, the main villain from the first film is revealed to be just a greedy scheming capitalist, but one whose actions have jeopardised everything. He’s more dangerous dead than alive – as we see the effect of his actions “reaching out from beyond the grave” to smother the living.

Director Doug Liman was replaced by Paul Greengrass for the sequel. I would never have called it at the time – Greengrass’ biggest credit at the point was the historical film Bloody Sunday with James Nesbitt –  but the director has a flair for action. The ante is raised considerably from the original film, while keeping the sequences brutal. Of particular note is a chase sequence where the script follows Bourne at least two twists beyond where a regular chase would have gone, and a fantastic car chase through Moscow. Greengrass deservedly stayed on for the sequel, playing down the more consciously stylistic elements that Liman brought (the music and the awkward over-the-top moments delivered with a straight-face) while maintaining the level of skill.

Greengrass makes several notable additions to the cast. Joan Allen, an actress long overlooked, is perhaps the greatest addition. Here she’s given the chance to exhude a wonderful authority as the agent assigned to track down Bourne. It’s a conventional role, but Allen plays it with the sort of dogged determination which helps the character seem like more than a one-dimensional plot device. Brian Cox also gets a meatier role to play this time, having appeared in the original. Cox had a career resurgence in the past decade – one which appears to have gone its course – but he never really got the credit he was due.

The Bourne Supremacy is perhaps the most tangental of the three films. Bourne would lose his identity in the first of the three films and reclaim it in the third. That isn’t to say important stuff doesn’t happen – indeed, the ending here implies that it’s an attempt to tie up some loose ends and some major characters have their arcs wrapped up – but just to observe that the middle film, like the middle child, has a lot more freedom to play. There’s no great weight of expectation on it, so it is allowed to draw out Bourne’s past and play with the themes of the past haunting the present without needing to phrase important questions or draft necessary answers. Perhaps that’s why, to me, it will always be supreme.

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