Jason Bourne has it bad. Good thing for us.
The Bourne Supremacy, the follow-up to 2002's The Bourne Identity, brings back Matt Damon as amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne. In the first film, a near-dead Bourne was fished out of the Mediterranean and nursed back to life, with everything intact save his memory. He had no idea who he was or what he did, but others - including the CIA and a handful of Parisian assassins - sure did.
By the end of the film, his instincts (especially for self-preservation) had returned, as well as just enough of his memory to convince him it was time to reinvent himself. With his new girlfriend, Marie (Franka Potente), in tow, he dropped out of sight, warning his former bosses and anyone else who would listen to leave him alone.
But once a spy, always a spy (as anyone who's seen Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven knows, there's no leaving behind a violent past). Supremacy opens with some gun-toting Russians after Bourne and Marie, who are hiding out in India, the latest in a series of refuges for the couple, who are always trying to stay one step ahead of Bourne's violent past. Soon, he's back on the run - only this time, it's not only his former enemies who are after him, but the CIA as well.
When CIA operatives are murdered during an operation in Berlin, the killers leave behind clues incriminating Bourne. The agent in charge of the operation, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), grimly determined to avenge their deaths, demands that her superiors tell her who this Bourne character is. They do, linking her up with his former boss, Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), and introducing her to Project Treadstone, the operation Bourne was involved in when he disappeared.
Convinced she's got a rogue agent on her hands, Landy goes after Bourne full-bore - not to kill him, which is what Abbott keeps insisting they do, but to capture him and find out what he knows.
Bourne, naturally, doesn't want to be captured; like Garbo, he only wants to be left alone. And he's is a pretty tough guy to nab (as a trail of broken bodies littered throughout Europe soon attests). What's more, his memory keeps returning in fits and starts, and Bourne continues to be unhappy about what he's remembering.
Damon, who's endured a string of forgettable films in which he's the best thing, is a perfect fit for Bourne; the actor's boyish good looks make him instantly both appealing and sympathetic. Damon also manages to look confused without appearing lost - a guy who knows what he's doing, even if he doesn't know why.
For two movies now, the great joy of Damon's performances has been watching him pick through the lint of his memory, finding an instinctual move here and a piece of intelligence there. As the fog of Bourne's memory gradually lifts, he becomes more and more connected to the man he once was, liking himself less and less.
The ever-capable Allen proves a great addition to the story. Her Pamela Landy is a career espionage specialist confident in her abilities, but not so much that she doesn't question her own conclusions. It's not easy to be both strong and malleable, but Allen pulls it off. As a plus, she's a woman playing a man's game, determined not to let the boys see her sweat.
Julia Stiles, as one of the few people left who worked with Bourne before his disappearance, is on hand just long enough to remind everyone they're not dealing with an Average Joe here. People like Jason Bourne, she notes ominously, don't make mistakes. Stiles' character is also one of the few people in the movie allowed to appear vulnerable, which helps give Supremacy a firm grounding and sense of reality.
Director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) has a fine sense of pacing, keeping events moving. It's rarely hard to guess what's going to happen next, but events unfold with such gusto that there's barely time to notice that. Greengrass is also smart enough to keep his camera on either Damon or Allen most of the time, so we can watch the intricate chess game they're playing against one another register on their faces and in their eyes. For a movie as frenetic as Supremacy, an awful lot of the story's forward progress is measured by the lifting of an eyebrow or the twitching of a lip.
It would have been nice if Greengrass had let his camera remain still for a few seconds at a time; the film's point of view is almost always in motion, to the point where it's sometimes tough to keep the characters and locales straight.
Then again, things rarely stand still for Jason Bourne, whether it's a fleeting shard of memory, fleeting happiness or a fleeting sense of safety. Why should audiences be afforded a luxury he can never enjoy?
The Bourne Supremacy
Starring Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Released by Universal
Rated PG-13 (violence and intense action, brief language)
Time 108 minutes
SUN SCORE * * * 1/2