In the smash-and-grab-you-by-the-throat action flick "The Bourne Supremacy," style is meaning and that meaning is fast, fast, fast. As in the earlier "The Bourne Identity," Matt Damon stars as a former CIA super spy caught in the ultimate pulp-existentialist quandary. Stricken with amnesia, Bourne enters the first film not knowing who he is, only to soon discover he can kill every which way. Now, with Bourne's identity if not memory intact, the question driving the action isn't existential (who am I?) but moral (what did I do?), a surprisingly weighty mystery for a movie intent on blasting our synapses into submission.
In the first Bourne blowout, the operative discovers he's a black-bag specialist, lands in espionage hot water and racks up a low-key happy ending with a girl (Franka Potente) after a lot of high-gear action. As before, this film shares the same lead character and punchy title as one of Robert Ludlum's airport-appropriate tomes, but little else. Returning screenwriter Tony Gilroy has again ditched Ludlum's plot, replacing the late author's Sino-shenanigans in "Supremacy" with personality-driven cross-continental intrigue. The new film opens with Bourne, now hidden away with the girl in the paradisiacal Indian state of Goa, coming under gunfire from an assassin (Karl Urban) whose deadly aim is as true as his. Pop-pop goes this weasel and the chase is on.
And on and on as Bourne and his nemeses hopscotch from India to Italy, Germany and Russia, with pit stops in Washington, D.C. In keeping with all this globetrotting, director Paul Greengrass, who either has very creative attention deficit disorder or the fastest reflexes of anyone over 14, keeps his movie moving and then some. "The Bourne Supremacy" isn't just paced and cut for maximum speed, with eye-blink edits and quicksilver camerawork, it's brilliantly paced and cut. In contrast to most contemporary action films, the hopped-up rhythms don't just sex up the material or try to transpose a video-game pseudo-reality to the big screen. Rather, what Greengrass and company do is capture a distinctly modern fractured sense of time and space, locking on a jagged, near-Cubist style that vividly conveys how Bourne experiences the world.
The apotheosis of that style is an awesome car chase featuring a taxi, a sleek SUV and various pulverized cars. At that point, Bourne has landed in Moscow, where he's tying up some last loose ends. (Much of what happens plot-wise involves the CIA, which in its fumbling resembles the agency of recent headlines.) As he races through the streets, ahead of and sometimes parallel to his engine-gunning adversary, the edits and the tempo of the music begin to match Bourne's accelerated pace. But Greengrass and his crack team aren't content to just amp the action: They push it until it shatters into bits and pieces, so that soon all you can take in is a hand furiously shifting gears, feet wildly dancing on pedals, squealing tires, shattering glass, a swish pan into oblivion.
The car chase flamboyantly expresses Bourne's radical dislocation and makes a vivid contrast to the film's only two scenes of sustained calm — one at the beginning, one at the end and both involving women. In the first face-to-face encounter, Bourne explains with palpable frustration how he only remembers his past in "bits and pieces." Using a notebook filled with pictures, annotations and newspaper clippings, the former agent has turned his powers of detection inward. Nestled in Goa, he sifts through his fragmented memory, building a new self from its rubble. Ludlum's great idea in the Bourne books is the concept of an amnesiac hero, a clean-slate of an action figure on which adventures can be built without the inconvenience of a conscience. Both films suggest that the puzzle of this man may finally be better left unsolved.
As any action fan knows, even without amnesia a lot of action-movie heroes behave as if they don't have consciences. If you're inclined to see this absence as symptomatic of the decline of civilization, so be it; mostly, however, this character tic just adds to the stupefying predictability of these kinds of movies. Pumped up with special effects, riddled with exploding squibs and backlit by orange fireballs, the modern American action movie had been in the creative doldrums when the first "Bourne" film hit in 2002. Not since John Woo landed in Hollywood a decade earlier had studio action seemed so fresh. But though Woo invigorated American action with his Hong Kong flair, his influence soon became something of a curse when everyone in town began cribbing his signature moves, including the ballet-like violence that he had learned long ago from Sam Peckinpah.
What made "The Bourne Identity" different was that its director, Doug Liman, who had previously made "Go," wasn't following the standard action-movie playbook. The film features tautly choreographed fight scenes and a socko car chase across Paris (featuring an old-model Mini Cooper, mind you), but what distinguishes it from run-of-the-mill action is its characters, whose vulnerabilities put a real-life spin on an otherwise unreal setup. It isn't just that Potente looks and sounds like an authentic woman, beautiful but also as familiar as an old college roommate, it's that when her character sees a man die she's so shaken she throws up, which is exactly what I expect I'd do too. Even Bourne, whose strength and ingenuity can sometimes seem superhuman (or at least movie-made), comes across as a regular guy — scary, true, but still human.
Because of an early plot twist, but mostly because of who Bourne actually was in his shady past, the character registers as less sympathetic in "The Bourne Supremacy." His heart's still pumping, but one glance at his haunted eyes and it's clear something has gone deeply, perhaps permanently wrong. There are all kinds of ways to read this shift into a darker shade of black, but the best way is to take a cue from the movie. Near the end of the film, Bourne enters a room and realizes he's returned to the scene of a crime he committed. There are all sorts of pleasures to be had in this summer bauble, but the most unexpectedly resonant is the sight of this boyish face frozen in a mirror as he finally grasps what he did once upon a time. Rarely does pop come with such sizzle.
'The Bourne Supremacy'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and intense action, and for brief language
Times guidelines: The language is pretty mild, the action is anything but.
Matt Damon...Jason Bourne
Joan Allen...Pamela Landy
Brian Cox...Ward Abbott
Universal Pictures presents in association with MP Theta Productions a Kennedy/Marshall production in association with Ludlum Entertainment, released by Universal Pictures. Director Paul Greengrass. Writer Tony Gilroy. Based on the novel by Robert Ludlum. Producers Frank Marshall, Patrick Crowley, Paul L. Sandberg. Director of photography Oliver Wood. Production designer Dominic Watkins. Editors Christopher Rouse, Richard Pearson. Music John Powell. Casting Joseph Middleton, John Hubbard, Dan Hubbard. Costume designer Dinah Collin. In English, and German, Italian and Russian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times