THANKS TO "The Bourne Identity" and now "The Bourne Supremacy," spy movies just got thrilling again.
It's great to see an action movie that takes the international dirty business seriously: ruthless agents with questionable allegiance, contract killers who can't be stopped, shady doublespeak in Langley backrooms and such evocative post-Cold War locales as Berlin and Moscow. (All due credit goes to Robert Ludlum, of course, whose books are the headwaters of this plentiful richness.)
Although director Paul Greengrass's hyper-frenetic camera movement and almost-stroboscopic editing could induce a brain seizure at times, "Supremacy" feels sleek, elegant and stripped down. And its straight-ahead plotting, low-tech action sequences and narrative efficiency make effortless mockery of the James Bond franchise which -- though financially successful -- has long become a garish parody of itself, overloaded with product placement, gadgetry, stale formula and brain-pounding music. For the characters in "Supremacy," there is little time for anything but the immediate business of killing the other guy before he gets you.
Matt Damon, reprising his role as Jason Bourne, is outwardly chilly and ruthless but passionately engaged. He has one simple mission. It needs no memorandums, no briefings, no contact with spy handlers. He has to stay alive. Everyone, it seems, is trying to kill him.
Despite changed names and exile in a hidden, sleepy corner of India, the former CIA assassin and his girlfriend, Marie (Franka Potente), find themselves being chased by an unknown assailant (Karl Urban). The would-be killer is very good at what he does. But Bourne, whose loss of memory was outlined in 2002's "The Bourne Identity," is trained to do one better.
What is Bourne's past? Who's behind the latest round of his troubles? Why are they picking on Bourne? What is the mission called Treadstone? What is Bourne's importance to Langley? These are the questions that give this movie its delicious urgency. Bourne's still mentally scrambling to discover his real identity and what terrible things he might have been involved in as a trained killer.
The latest surge of aggression directed against him, he eventually learns, comes from a double hit in Berlin. Two CIA operatives, performing a mission to receive classified materials, have been executed. A fingerprint, Bourne's, has been discovered at the scene of the crime. Even though Bourne was thousands of miles away at the time, he has to face the concerted might of the CIA, led by a very motivated Pamela Landy (Joan Allen).
It's time for Bourne to fight back.
A movie like this is no good without formidable enemies. And even though we've seen these archetypes a thousand times before, there's something refreshingly ominous about CIA mission leaders Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) and Landy, whose institutional muscle, technology and will to close this case for good are daunting, even for a master improviser like Bourne.
Greengrass (who made the memorable Irish political drama "Bloody Sunday") and scriptwriter Tony Gilroy (who adapted the previous "Bourne") have almost completely removed human warmth from the movie. (The exceptions are Bourne's early moments with Marie and a finale with someone who figures largely in his traumatic past.) But that coldness is the movie's greatest asset. Everyone's a candidate to be toe-tagged if they don't pay attention. It's simply a treat to watch Bourne outwit his enemies and stay one step ahead of death. That human business between caring individuals? Save it for an Italian movie.
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (PG-13, 110 minutes) -- Contains violence and obscenity. Area theaters.