The Spy Who Forgot Too Much
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2004; Page C01
Paul Greengrass is listed as the director of "The Bourne Supremacy," but the movie is so impersonal and mechanistic I wouldn't be surprised to learn its true auteur was an NS-5 from "I, Robot." This movie is "It, Robot."
In the first place, its subject proper isn't espionage or betrayal but travel plans. First Matt Damon goes here and then, for some reason, he goes there. Then, having arrived there, he picks a new destination and heads over to that place. Now and then a fight or a car chase breaks out, now and then he bumps into a particular Russian assassin, but mostly he just experiences the glories of modern transportation. Then, in the end, he confesses his sins to Anna Kournikova and all is well in the world.
What? You're telling me that wasn't Anna Kournikova? All right, all right, but she (Oksana Akinshina) sure looks like Kournikova, and she acts about as well as Anna did in her American Express commercial of a few years back.
Whatever. A sequel to "The Bourne Identity," derived more or less -- well, actually not more but quite a bit less -- from a Robert Ludlum novel of the '70s, the movie follows the amnesiac Jason Bourne (snoozy Damon), who, in his unremembered life, was an international CIA hit man (question: Why are amnesiacs always international hit men and never, say, service department managers at the Sears store in Dubuque?). "Supremacy" takes off with the forgetful Mr. Bourne and his gal pal (Franka Potente) hanging out in Goa, India, while he tries to remember who he was. Franka Potente fan club members be warned: This is unlikely to be her breakthrough movie. I'll tell you no more . . . but bring hankies.
Meanwhile -- the movie is full of meanwhiles -- in Berlin, a CIA operation has gone bad, two case officers are killed, and although we know Jason was in Goa drowning his sorrows in curry and those double-size bottles of Taj Mahal and trying to forget Ben Affleck, we've seen that pesky Russian hit guy put a phony fingerprint on a dummy detonator, thus convincing CIA biggie Joan Allen that Bourne's the bad guy whom she must hunt down and kill.
Your question would be: What is Joan Allen doing in a movie like this? And the answer is, she got tired of playing Nixon's wife, so in this one she gets to play Nixon. She's all bark bark bark and she metalicizes her eyes like ball bearings and spits her dialogue out in small, pungent gobs like, well, spit. She's the WASP good girl (4.0 accum, cheerleader captain, advanced placement classes) grown up and gone Agency Old Girl. Clothes by Talbots, hair by Breck, disposition by Martha Stewart. But possibly it's not fair to single her out for dialogue-spitting: Everyone in the film spits out their dialogue. That's one of the stylizations of "The Bourne Supremacy," along with dit-dit-dotted datelines such as "Berlin, Germany" and "Goa, India" (but never "Chugwater, Wyoming").
I had some trouble with the plot, but I'm not the only one -- so did the screenwriter. I think it's something like this: A traitor still in the agency realizes that certain docs that reveal him are about to be picked up by the Berlin office, so he blabs about the operation to his evil cohorts, who in turn -- that bad-penny Russian assassin is involved -- set up the frame. But Bourne survives an early assassination attempt and starts off on his own worldwide travel itinerary to get to the bottom of all this. He seems to represent not moral rectitude or even crass revenge but Travelocity.
Damon is dull in a part that won't let him be anything but. Allen is lively, particularly in her spat-fests with the great Brian Cox as an opposing CIA exec; the two have wonderful anti-chemistry and I'd love to see them in a remake of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or "The Bickersons." The pesky Russky is played with ominous cheekbones by Karl Urban, and does this guy have a career going or what? In his last five roles he's played Kirill, Vaako, Eomer (twice), Munder and, best of all, Capt. Aran Dravyk.
The movie is utterly synthetic. By that I mean its suspense -- yes, it's suspenseful -- is not organic. It doesn't come from the classical model of motive propelling character propelling plot, which further compels dangerous, imagination-provoking circumstances. Instead, it's imposed from the outside, arbitrarily. The musical score, by John Powell, is one such example. If you ever wondered what happened to the Little Drummer Boy, the answer is he grew up and became John Powell. Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom! That much pounding of the skins on a soundtrack could make drying paint exciting!
Then there's the camera style. Greengrass is most famous for his very fine 2002 film "Bloody Sunday," a re-creation of the Derry massacre of 1972 in Northern Ireland, where British troops opened fire on a civil rights demonstration. He deployed a cinema verite technique to great effect in that film, using choppy, hand-held camera work to convey the chaos, fury, fear and violence of a civic tragedy. You were there.
Obviously the owners of the Bourne franchise were paying attention and gobbled him up to bring the same energy to this edition. But it's far less effective, because it's overused to the point of inducing nausea in some (I'm betting three upchucks per showing on opening weekend) and sleep in others. Gunfights, fistfights, car chases, they all look the same -- blurred, choppy, edited as if to the rhythm of popping corn, initially exciting but, once you get it, increasingly annoying.
And finally there's the anachronistic banality of the entire conceit. Everything in the movie feels old, from the ancient trope of the "super agent," which dates from the '60s, to the amnesia gimmick (even older) to the flashing datelines and the steely japing of the agency executives to the utter predictability of the ultimate villain.
Sometimes something old can seem new again. But in the case of "The Bourne Supremacy," something old just seems old.
The Bourne Supremacy (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13, but is an excellent example of ratings creep, as its violence is frequent and graphic.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Spy on the fly: Matt Damon as the amnesiac CIA hit man with Julia Stiles in "The Bourne Supremacy." The sequel's plot travels far and wide but can't get off the ground.
(Jasin Boland -- Universal Studios Via AP)