Travel tip: Do you want to see the world but don't have the funds? Want to travel to exotic locales, meet mysterious, grim, steely serious strangers who, by their scruff, dark suits with clean lines, and ominous aura of poise, could all vaguely be related to Eric Clapton? Don't want to look like a tourist while doing it? I recommend Matt Damon's Bourne pictures, first 2002's The Bourne Identity, a quietly graceful slice of post-Cold War intrigue a lot of people have great affection for; then The Bourne Supremacy, its disorienting and melancholy follow-up, which opens today.
Both are adapted from Robert Ludlum's bestselling spy novels, books whose readership you need only step foot in an airport lounge to find. And watching these smart studio thrillers, that airport thing makes more sense than ever. Tourists are just that, people on tour, out of place, who go to cities they don't know, to visit places they've heard of. Most spy films skip across the globe but act like tourists - if Paris is the destination, the climactic fight will be at the Eiffel Tower; if Washington is the stop, expect shots of the White House.
The Bourne Supremacy, like the first film, isn't loaded with sugarcoated characters we've been instructed how to feel about; its spies don't travel across a hermetically-sealed movie blockbuster game board. It's the only spy picture I can think of that goes to Moscow but instead of disrupting the Kremlin, would rather hang around back alleys and side streets on an overcast day. The nondescript buildings in these pictures are characters, blank and ugly, concrete and crumbling from age; they could be made of crystallized sugar, and they carry the whiff of an era when being clandestine might have even been a little dashing.
Supremacy is too brutal and unpredictable to buy into spy myths, though. It picks up two years after the first film. Bourne (Damon), the amnesiac spy with an ID problem, is living in a hut in India with his girlfriend from the first film, Marie (Franka Potente); when tragedy strikes, he hightails across Asia and Europe, skipping through more cities this time, on the run from a Russian
assassin, then on something of a revenge mission. In the first 20 minutes alone, Supremacy hopscotches through (deep breath now) India, Berlin, Amsterdam, Moscow, Virginia, Naples, and London, bouncing back and forth with only a cityscape to work from. Bourne is not on tour. He has no time to make sense of who he is, let alone where; his memories are flash-edited lightning strikes of highway signs and long car trips to hits.
So action trumps clarity, here; but for once, that's the point. What's happening isn't nearly as important as how Bourne thinks his way through situations. What I love about this installment is that - despite its constant, dizzying addiction to movement, including a pulse-racing car chase through Moscow that puts us in the car, inches from grinding metal - it finds a second to show us what a typical train ride might look like if you were headed from Berlin to Moscow, across backyards, and though industrial stockyards.
But just for a second.
If the buildings are characters - if Damon's no-nonsense hard shell matches them nicely - the action itself becomes a character. We get flashes of images: feet, a gun, a car coming at the driver's door too fast. It all seems to be happening at once - and you can't even tell what's happening.
Then it makes sense. The action, blurred and kinetic to the point where we don't know who's chasing whom, verges on abstract impressionism. Adrenaline feels this choppy; but unlike action films that simply spin the camera, there's design. We're seeing just enough to feel that incoherence Bourne is feeling. The usual monotony evaporates, effectively trimming each scene to only what we need to comprehend.
These movies work, perhaps more than anything else, because they're recipients of an unofficial Hollywood outreach program. You could call it a trend (at least I hope so) where studios pair big seasonal blockbusters, their sequels and their franchise pictures, with smart directors and not just video directors from the Jerry Bruckheimer school, content with recycling Hollywood trash. The latest Harry Potter got Alfonso Cuaron of Y Tu Mama Tambien; Sam Raimi works wonders with Spider-Man. The Bourne Identity benefited from the way Doug Liman (of Swingers fame) set the tone, focusing on a recognizable world. He's back as a producer.
Paul Greengrass is his inspired replacement. His Bloody Sunday (2002) methodically laid out the hours in a tragic day in Northern Ireland with roving handheld cameras that surrounded us with details and movement. He's ideal for a series that never delivers violence without the stun of what actual violence provides. These films also work because of Damon. The difference between Bourne and the typical movie spy is the typical movie spy wears the job like an expensive watch. Damon strips this. He doesn't court sympathy, doesn't have time for suavity; he's physical without posturing. By the end, we know who he is but we don't care much. He doesn't, either. Damon looks older. But it's perfect. In CIA speak, he's off the grid. His life is over. He's a killer now. Too bad he knows it.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com
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