The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Embodying the ruthlessness of the eat-its-own CIA (as well as the entertainment industry), Bourne isn't seeking revenge in the usual sense.

The Bourne Supremacy

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Karl Urban, Franka Potente, Gabriel Mann
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-07-23

Hidden away in Goa, India, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is having nightmares. Frazzled and sweaty, he walks to the bathroom for the obligatory mirror check, then to the balcony of the tiny apartment he's sharing with his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente), where he can look haunted while listening to water lapping at a background shore.

As this rote beginning of The Bourne Supremacy suggests, the righteously paranoid superspy is in for more trouble from his past. Though he's not certain what the "bits and pieces" mean, Marie insists he write them down, because "something good" might emerge. Their effort to repair Bourne's "broken mind" resonates throughout his second run-in with the remnants of the Treadstone Project (namely, aging Cold Warrior Ward Abbott [Brian Cox]) and another, less institutionally immersed CIA team headed by the very crisp deputy director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). (Abbott's first efforts to dismiss her questions suggest his utter disdain of the next generation of spies: "I think you've wandered a little past your pay grade." He might as well have added, "Missy.")

Bourne's many conflicts in this film begin with a couple of bad Russians, the oil capitalist Gretkov (Karl Roden) and his very own assassin, Kirill (Karl Urban). They tend to be shadowy and interact via cell phones and head gear, but their very dispassion makes them likely opponents for icy Bourne (Kirill makes a quick trip to a red-lit, pulsing Moscow club full of nearly naked girls, suggesting in the most pedestrian way his "iniquity). Their first function is to frame Bourne for the murder of two CIA field agents in Berlin while simultaneously killing him.

Or so they think. Every wily and resilient (and the franchise star), Bourne eludes the attempt on his life in India and then proceeds to reenter "the grid," in order to find reasons and a sort of redemption. His immediate questions have to do with why someone is trying to kill him and how come the CIA -- whose Treadstone Project, you recall from The Bourne Identity, zapped his brain and so over-trained him that he'd be a complete killing machine, with headaches, twitches, and nightmares -- won't leave him the hell alone. While the end of the first film left Bourne looking as if he might have figured out how to live a real life, with another person, the sequel returns him to his perpetually angsty, agitated state: the man without a real name or a real life, the killer who can't stop because that's "what he does."

But when the perfect assassin is suddenly rendered missionless, not to mention amnesiac, he's adrift (hence, the first film's opening scene, fishing Bourne out of the sea). Embodying the ruthlessness of the eat-its-own CIA (as well as the entertainment industry), Bourne isn't seeking revenge in the usual sense; rather, he's trying to map his seemingly inexplicable behaviors (once again, his reflexes are stunning, though this time around he's less surprised by his own speed and brutality). Though he's plainly drawn from the Robert Ludlum novels, Bourne in the movies is less a man of his time than a man out of time, an emblem of an agency and a worldview coming apart. Bottom line: no matter what happens to Bourne, he's always good for fragmentations of mind and blitzes of dead-on violence.

Once he heads back to Europe, the narrative is repeatedly fragmented. While the multiple locations (Berlin, London, Naples, and eventually, Moscow) are typical globetrotting spy devices, the memory lapses and dreadful violence are considerably less pleasant. Maintaining his distance (via high-power scopes), Bourne re-engages with the nefarious multi-national agents whom he worked so hard to renounce the first time out. These would be the alleged professionals who insist on believing every obviously misleading clue (fingerprint, name, photo) that comes their way. And so, they're quick to accept at face value the planted (and frankly sloppy) evidence that Bourne is responsible for the CIA guys' murders, as well as his own evil collusions with his erstwhile boss, Conklin (Chris Cooper, who appears in those fits of flashbacks that so perturb our boy Bourne). Such gullibility supports contrived movie plots, but the resulting blunders are not a little alarming (not to mention reminiscent of the intelligence errors that have shaped U.S. foreign policy of late).

And so, Bourne must sort out not only his own lost history (which involves a re-visitation with the in-over-her-head operative Nicky [Julia Stiles], during a brief and wholly abusive encounter), but also the mistakes being made by his supposed superiors, those agents equipped with arrays of surveillance gadgets and weapons. True, he has those nightmares driving him ("This is not a drill, soldier! This is a live project," echoes in his wrecked head as he proceeds on an assassination that he will -- once he remembers it -- regret in a wholly melodramatic manner). But Bourne is also relentless, precise and fearsome, in pursuit of his goal, extracting some meaning out of his chaos.

And so The Bourne Supremacy, directed by Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) expands smartly on Doug Liman's first film's spastic existentialism, twisting it even more tightly. Indeed, some fight and car chase scenes are nearly unreadable, thanks to convulsive camerawork (featuring lots of close-ups; you imagine DP Oliver Wood all up in Damon's face, whether creeping around hotel rooms or leaping like a crazy man from the Friedrichstrasse Bridge over the river Spree), and extreme editing (courtesy of Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson). Bourne's complicated schemes can't possibly work, but they do, partly because his CIA opponents are slow, but partly because his brain is so scrambled that he conjures connections they can't even imagine.

For all Bourne's charismatic conniving, The Bourne Supremacy tries hard to moralize him, to give him a sort of principled solitude in which he's paid for his sins and earned the long, lonely shot set against a snowy backdrop. To that end, it delivers standard spy movie sequel repetitions: see Bourne leap and kick, see the camera lurch and run, see ferocious boy-boy mêlées you loved before, again. None of this, however, is as gripping as Bourne's internal conflict. His dilemma occasionally veers toward Pinocchioish vexations: he wants to be a real boy, a self not legible on his multiple passports or in his splintered memories. But his noble goal, his efforts to put things right, are less interesting than how he survives himself.






'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.


Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.


Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.


The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.


Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.


In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.


Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.