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.