Identity Crisis

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and I have to say I liked Jason Bourne a lot better when he (and we) weren't quite sure who or what he was. When The Bourne Identity slipped relatively un-hyped into the clanging, explosive, special-effects-laden lineup of Summer Movies 2002, nearly everything about it was a surprise and a revelation.

First, there was the anachronistic source material—Robert Ludlum's twisty, dense Cold War-era spy novel, which seemed entirely out of place surrounded by such obvious “product” as Vin Diesel's X Games-inspired behemoth XXX, or even the CGI-burdened rendering of teen-angsty comic book hero Spider-Man. Then there was the genius casting of blank Matt Damon as the amnesiac superassassin Jason Bourne, playing opposite spunky, whimsical Franka Potente as the distressed damsel Marie—an inspired pairing, as it turned out. Not to mention the confident, understated direction of Doug Liman, who had shown promise with Swingers and Go but demonstrated unexpected poise and reach with Identity, trusting in such old-fashioned notions as plot, pacing and character development at a time when merchandising-motivated films like Scooby-Doo, Men in Black II, The Scorpion King and even Star Wars: Attack of George Lucas' Ego were raking in the receipts.

Sequels are a bitch, though, especially when the sequel is weighted down with heavy expectations. Even so, the list of superfluous or downright wrong moves made by The Bourne Supremacyis long and, despite the imperative to catch us off-guard again, ultimately unnecessary. In the end, the need to separate from the first film seems to have sliced most of Identity's considerable charm right off the bone of what could have been (and still could be) an interesting franchise.

I'm told Doug Liman had problems with the studio because of his insistence on sticking to his vision for Identity despite the suits' clamoring for him to jack it up according to the new rules for action films, as written by music-video-weaned directors such as Charlie's Angels' McG. (Shouldn't that name have been warning enough?) But although director Paul Greengrass teamed up with the original's screenwriter, Tony Gilroy, and producer, Patrick Crowley, he has—like his protagonist—wandered too far off the reservation.

Supremacy begins with Bourne, suffering from dreadful flashbacks of his former life, and Marie on the lam in India, where we get a brief glimpse of the less-than-idyllic-but-still-pretty-good-considering-he's-a-former-assassin life they have together. There must have been some hurry, though, to get Damon out of his shorts and into his combat gear (an overcoat and hiking boots) because before you can say “Treadstone” (the shadowy counterintelligence operation from which Bourne sprung), his hopes for a simpler life are, literally, run off the road. From this point on, with a few leaden and all-too-predictable subplots thrown in, Bourne changes from hunted into hunter. The change, which renders him a one-dimensional character, doesn't do the movie any good.

Where Identitymodulated nicely between leg-cramping action sequences and the developing relationship between the equally desperate and needy Bourne and Marie, Supremacy flies by like one long, forgettable car chase. Although I can't give away why, there's no one in the sequel—until, that is, the wince-inducing conclusion—to remind Bourne or the audience of his human dimensions. As a result, the basic push-pull between Bourne's desire for love and normalcy vs. his terrifying—even to him—competence as a killer is absent here. With zero back story to go on (something Identity's love story compensated for), one can't help but wonder what kind of an asshole would have signed up for this state-sponsored killing business, anyway? In Supremacy, Damon is left to play basically one droning, humorless note, which, unfortunately, he does with his eyes closed.

Supremacy could certainly have gotten further if Greengrass had paid more attention to the stylistic grace of the first Bourne movie. Among Liman's masterstrokes in Identity was to hold the camera steady (or splice in freeze-frame images) as the action unfolded, the result of which was to make each sequence, no matter how improbable, seem entirely plausible and painfully real. The action scenes left one gasping. Greengrass—whose 2002 film about the Irish troubles, Bloody Sunday, looked like a documentary—here relies on the same sort of hand-held camera work as that film, which, though no doubt intended to pump up the volume, has the effect of detaching the viewer from the chaotic onscreen blur. One is impatient for something to happen, then disappointed to realize it already has. If there is to be a third installment of Bourne, its producers would be wise to remember that what made the first incarnation such an unexpected charmer in a summer cascade of disposable action movies was its willingness to swim against the current.

The Bourne Supremacy was directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Tony Gilroy, from the novel by Robert Ludlum; produced by Patrick Crowley, Frank Marshall and Paul L. Sandberg; and Stars Matt Damon and Franka Potente. Now playing countywide.

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