The Bourne Identity surprised a lot of us when it came out two years ago. We were so used to being pounded on by Hollywood action-thrillers, with a car chase every 10 minutes or so, that we'd forgotten how much finesse these movies could have, how much pleasure they could provide by talking up to us instead of down. As a CIA-trained assassin who couldn't remember who or what he was, Matt Damon didn't do very much except avoid flashing that mile-wide smile of his, and that seemed like a gift to the audience as well. It allowed us to focus our attention on the intricacy of the plot, the three-dimensional chess of spy-versus-spy. The movie had undergone the classic troubled shoot -- disputes between the director and the producers over approach, plus script problems, including that old bugaboo, a weak third act. But enough of director Doug Liman's vision came through to give it a personal stamp. The Bourne Identity actually had an identity.
So does its sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, though not quite the same one as The Bourne Identity. Paul Greenglass, who directed Bloody Sunday, one of the most powerful movies ever made about the trouble in Northern Ireland, has taken over from Liman, and he appears to have shown up loaded for bear. Shot like a you-are-there verité documentary, Bloody Sunday plopped us down in the middle of a peaceful demonstration that turned into a massacre, and Greenglass adopts a similar approach here, breaking each scene into a kaleidoscopic swirl of often-blurry shots. The effect is both energizing and, over the long haul, slightly nauseating. (Or maybe what I ate for lunch that day didn't agree with me.) It's not like Greenglass doesn't slow down on occasion, though only on occasion. And it's not like he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. Yes, the movie's edited to within an inch of its life, but we never lose our bearings. It's like being inside a gyroscope.
In other words, it's a reflection of what's going on inside Jason Bourne's head. "Just bits and pieces" is how he describes his memory to Franka Potente's Marie, who's around just long enough to remind us of the emotional support she provided Bourne the last time. This time, the two of them are holed up in Goa, India, when a Russian assassin stops by to let Bourne know there's nowhere to hide. On top of that, Bourne's being blamed and, it turns out, framed for a hit in Berlin. Time to go on the run again, both from the CIA and, he hopes, toward himself, his real identity. What happens after that I'm not sure I could diagram on a blackboard -- a game of cat and mouse, basically, in which Bourne is sometimes the cat and sometimes the mouse. Joan Allen, seeming more no-nonsense than ever (she never smiles either), shows up as the agency official in charge of tracking Bourne down and bringing him in. And Brian Cox gets off some good lines as the agency official who tries to make sure that doesn't happen.
There's always something pleasurable about watching extremely competent people go up against other extremely competent people, and there are enough of them in The Bourne Supremacy to restore your faith in the CIA. (If only they were capable of some of this stuff!) Even so, Bourne always manages to stay either a step ahead or a step behind his nemeses, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving him on his own a lot of the time. He could use another romantic sidekick or a scene or two with Allen or Cox. The Bourne Identity was mostly about Bourne's search for his identity. The Bourne Supremacy is also about Bourne's search for his identity, but it's mostly about his supremacy. He knows multiple languages and multiple ways of killing people. And he'll surely clear his name if he can just remember what the hell it is. Until then, he's a bit of a blur, not unlike the movie itself. It all goes by so quickly, in fact, that you can hardly believe the director limited himself to 24 frames per second.