Tuesday, July 28, 2009
A friend of mine commented on my review of The Bourne Identity that he would never watch the films because the sequels follow not the plots of Ludlum's books but stretch out the first book to fit the framework of the whole franchise. That might explain why plot takes a backseat in both of the sequels. Now, I can appreciate his feelings and of many other fans who might feel they lost the chance to ever see the books they enjoy on the big screen, especially a series as lauded as Ludlum's, so I hope he isn't too offended when I say that, from the bottom of my heart, I don't care. I don't care that Tony Gilroy decided to stick with the first book for three whole films, and I imagine I won't care when I finally read the books, no matter how much I love them. Why? Because with these sequels, Doug Liman, Paul Greengrass and Tony Gilroy made the best action films of the decade.
Greengrass takes over the director's chair for Liman, who still stayed on as a producer, to controversial results. Greengrass of course is the fellow to thank -- or blame, as many of us would -- for the rise of hand-held camera usage in major Hollywood films. His style of constant movement and breakneck editing makes even scenes of dialogue or a man packing a bag as visceral as a shootout. Greengrass' style spawned a wave of imitators, some of which benefited from this style (Collateral) but mostly detract and annoy (Public Enemies, Quantum of Solace).
The problem is that no one has Greengrass' knack for using this technique. His editing creates a disorienting, visceral experience, but he knows to give us at least some clue of what's going on. His restlessness comes with a vague hint of restraint, and his most interesting shots contain not action but dialogue, for he loves to quick-zoom on his actors' faces, better to read their buried emotions. I was also taken with a tracking shot through a subway that was so stable I pegged it as a Steadicam shot, only for the frame to bounce ever so slightly, signifying as a regular hand-held shot like all the rest.
Greengrass is perfectly suited for the task of filming Jason Bourne's ongoing adventure to recover his identity and memories, as The Bourne Supremacy takes some dark turns that push our hero to the edge. Still hiding from the CIA two years after the events of the last film, Bourne enjoys a bit of happiness with girlfriend Marie. They both are ready to run at any moment, but the CIA has relaxed the pressure enough for them to get a bit complacent. That, of course, is when the strike come, and Marie is tragically murdered as she and Bourne attempt to get out of a crowded village in India.
So now, Bourne turns from the hunted to the hunter. He still evades capture, but his thirst for revenge drives him to take the fight to the agents who will not leave him in peace. In the first film, Bourne was always surprised when he instinctively drew upon his fighting prowess, and that held him back somewhat. Here, he knows that intelligence agencies turned him into a killing machine, and his fighting is significantly more brutal. Greengrass photographs these vicious fistfights in such a way that every punch feels as though it breaks bones and ruptures organs.
The car chases are better, too. The biggest action piece of the film concerns a chase through the streets of Moscow, as exciting and confusing a sequence as you could ever hope to see. While I can certainly buy MI6 outfitting James Bond's Aston-Martin and BMW's with heavy armor (I mean, wouldn't you start there before trying to make it invisible?), but I never really bought his fancy little speedsters taking all the crashes and bullets and rockets they did. But Bourne commandeers boxy Euro cars, the kind that look as though they can take some punishment. And Lord knows Bourne's antics put them to the test more thoroughly than the best crash ratings.
While the story means far less here than in the first by virtue of stretching out the final act of a single book, The Bourne Supremacy is no less intriguing thanks to its actors. Brian Cox and Joan Allen deepen the levels of distrust and secrecy even within a single organization, as Allen's Landy attempts to sort out the bureaucratic mess left in the wake of Treadstone's failure. Abbot spends all of his efforts laying the blame for any loose ends on Bourne's feet and further raises Landy's ire against the agent when he pins the deaths of some of her agents on him as well. Allen is marvelous as the initially ruthless boss who begins to uncover the truth and doubt the necessity to find and stop Bourne.
Damon only improves upon the role he excelled at in the first film. He's got movie star looks, but also a plainness that allows him to fade into a crowd in any part of the world. Bourne only has about three facial expressions -- blank, tense and furious -- but Damon captures the torrent of emotions flowing underneath and presents a character who works as a three-dimensional study, not just some cartoonish, indestructible spy. Performances like this add to Greengrass' impeccable use of shaky cam (if only he was the sole person using the technique, because he embarrasses everyone else) to make a pulse-pounding thriller that lacks Identity's story but improves upon it in every other way.