The Bourne Supremacy (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I suppose that there will be or already has been a lot of carping from critics who have read the book and are disappointed that this movie has just about nothing in common with it. So it goes. Interesting point, I suppose, but just not relevant to whether this is a good movie. Let's get all that out of the way. The first film in the series, The Bourne Identity, had something like a 50% correlation to the eponymous book. Both sources started with the same premise, a secret agent of some kind with amnesia, on the one hand hoping to regain his memory, but on the other hand afraid to find out just how big a scumbag he really was. That basic premise was pretty much all the film retained from the book. Compared to the book's Jason Bourne, the film's Bourne found out quite different things about his past. It is true that the film lost some of the very best elements in Bourne's search for his identity, and I'm not sure why the scriptwriter chose to change some things which I found to be fascinating and even moving, but it was his call, and the new elements worked just fine for those capable of evaluating the movie as an entity independent of the book. (And, indeed, the things Bourne finds out about himself in the book, or some very similar things, could still come out somewhere later in the movie series, which has no reason to end here.) In the second film, Jason Bourne is really no longer a character acting in a Robert Ludlum plot. He is simply a character originally created by Robert Ludlum, just as the recent James Bond movies have simply featured a character originally created by Ian Fleming. OK, do we have that out of the way? This movie has almost nothing in common with the book of the same name. That's sort of interesting, but also pretty much irrelevant. Let's move on, shall we?

The Bourne Supremacy is a very good movie. It is not without its flaws, which I'll discuss momentarily, but it works and it works well. The key reasons are as follows:

1. Most important, the audience identifies with Jason Bourne. We feel his sense of loss when he loses his beloved. We feel his sense of outrage at being something that other people have created. We feel his frustration when he can't figure out just who the hell he is in the first place. We feel every bit of his anger when he encounters betrayal and unwarranted attacks when he's just trying to be a peaceful hippie living in India, trying to build some kind of life, trying to mind his own business. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy and the two directors who have helmed this series can take credit for a portion of our bond with this character, but Matt Damon can take the biggest chunk of the honors for bringing a special quality to the character. He has forged an everyday guy trying to figure out why the hell he knows how to be a killing machine. He is a decent guy who is really scared and ashamed of what he once might have been. The humanity of the character, and our empathy with him, are what really lift the film toward greatness. We're not just rooting for Bourne, we're inside of him. He manages to kill half the innocent population of Berlin and Moscow in this movie, but we're still with him all the way.

2. Second, Jason Bourne is a cool character. He's kind of a combination of James Bond and Snake Plisskin, always in command, yet always pissed off, and of course always fucked over by corrupt authority. In fact, I like him better than James Bond. When you really get down to brass tacks, James Bond is a glib, show-offy twit. He's Dean Martin with a British accent. He's Hugh Grant with muscles. If Bond is a particularly shallow society character from a Thackeray novel, Jason Bourne, on the other hand, is a character from Dostoevsky or Conrad, a tortured, conflicted soul struggling mightily to sort out what is right from all the world's wrongs, and possibly even to do the right thing after he finds it. If he drinks anything, it isn't a vodka martini, and if you hand him one of those, he won't give a shit whether you shake it or stir it. If he walks into a bar, he'll sit on a stool and ask for "a beer", then get on with his reading, or fall deep into his thoughts.

The end of this film sets up a sequel in which Bourne tries to find his real identity. I hope they do more of these films, and I hope they manage to maintain the integrity of the character without jumping the shark, because Jason Bourne is the most interesting recurring character to come around in a long time.

3. The pacing is excellent. The story line and the action scenes are OK - to tell you the truth, they are not great, but I suppose they are good enough that the overwhelming strength of the first two characteristics is not enervated by a gimmicky or clichéd plot.

 I said I would mention the weaknesses.

1. One evil hyphenated word: hand-held. I got dizzy watching some action and exposition scenes. This new director is really into that wacky hand-held aesthetic, and he's got a whole jittery, dark, Blair Witch thing going here. They really need to lose that whole cinema verité feeling, or at least most of it. This is a big budget film, not an NYU film school project, and they can surely afford better, more sophisticated camera movement techniques, as well as a few more lightbulbs. In one of the fight scenes, between Jason Bourne and another guy whose talents were similarly cultivated by the same black CIA operation, the audience can't tell who is who, nor who is winning. Bob Uecker once said there is nothing so difficult about catching a knuckleball. You just wait until it stops rolling, then pick it up and return it to the pitcher. Similarly, following these fight scenes is not so difficult. Just wait until the camera stops spinning, then check to see which guy is still breathing. I suppose that a little bit of cinema verité is OK in its place, but there is just no reason for so many scenes in this film to look like they were filmed by Katharine Hepburn with a home camcorder. I think the director did a great job on the pacing of the film, which is his main job after all, so I have no quibble with the jittery, frenetic editing. But I nearly heaved from all the superfluous camera movement. At one point, when the audience is looking over a character's shoulder, the filmmakers used a jittery camera and fast edits to zoom in on stuff I was supposed to be reading along with Damon. I had to turn my head away and close my eyes to kill the motion sickness.

DVD info from Amazon

  • 10 Minutes of Deleted Scenes

  • Crash Cam: Car Chase Stunt Featurette

  • Bourne to Be Wild: Fight Training Featurette

  • Blowing Things Up: Pyrotechnical Sequence Featurette

  • The Go-Mobile Revs up the Action: Action Photography Featurette

  • Anatomy of a Scene: The Explosive Bridge Chase Scene

  • Matching Identities: Casting Featurette

  • Keeping It Real - Photo Shoot Featurette

  • On the move with Jason Bourne - Travelogue Featurette

2. Julia Stiles is back, as the head of the CIA's crack unit of moon-faced 12 year old girls who over-enunciate their words and act really scared when they talk to Matt Damon. Without that team, well, frankly, America simply could not guarantee your security.

3. I would have preferred more mystery, fewer chase and fight scenes, but that's really just my personal bias showing through. Chase scenes generally bore me, and there are many here.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: a bit less than three stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

The People Vote ...



The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Very solid thriller. Jason Bourne is a great character, and the pacing is exciting. My only real quibble is that the film is marred by too much jittery, hand-held, often nauseating use of cinema verité techniques.

Return to the Movie House home page