Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 05, 2004 9:31 pm 
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Faster, Jason Bourne, Kill! Kill!

Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels are a great basis for a movie franchise. Their hero has lost his memory. He has lost touch with the Who, the Why, the What, the Where and the When of his life. Only the Hows of his training as an espionage enforcer remain with him as root instincts -- all the quicksilver alertness and killing and breaking-and-entering and language skills. This means you have a neutral action star. You can make up the plot as you go along. And since he’s still in the process of finding out “the Bourne identity,” character development is optional and flexible. And in Matt Damon the franchise has found a rugged young star with the quality of energy, physicality, and neediness such an emptied-out individual might have.

In fact character development in Bourne Supremacy is minimal and limited to recognizing faces and voices. Not a warm and fuzzy individual, our Jason. He’d as soon garrote you as kiss you, be you man or woman, and he may do both in the space of few minutes. In Bourne 1 (AKA The Bourne Identity, directed for maximum fun by Swingers' Doug Liman), Jason bonded with a woman he needed as a partner, Marie (Franka Potente), who was very nearly a match for him. But this time he's forced, early on, to let her drown in a chase, and though he attempts mouth-to-mouth underwater and sheds a brief tear or two later, he pushes her off into the deep without hesitation. End of relationship. There is no other, except for the telephonic one with his would –be nemesis, CIA officer Pamela Landy (Pat Nixon look-alike Joan Allen, not a romantic possibility).

Bourne’s idea of fair play in Supremacy is to go out of his way to tell a young woman he’s killed her parents so she knows one didn’t kill the other as it was made to look.

The plot is not minimal. It has its intricacies, but we need not go into them here, and to do so would spoil the suspense. The mystery of why Bourne has done the past killing in Berlin that he's now investigating, and why part of the Agency is trying to kill him again and the other part is trying to bring him in to find out the secrets behind the "Treadstone" assassination team and "tie it off" is the motor behind the action.

The film was directed by Paul Greengrass, who made the excellent 2002 pseudo-documentary Bloody Sunday, about the quelled Irish uprising of 1972. His taste for vérité effects has led him to adopt a jumpy camera style with many zooms and closeups, which the editors augment with accelerated cutting. A warning for Bourne 2 users: prepare for nausea. Consider bringing Dramamine for the jumpy camera and jerky cutting. A lot of it really is a blur. If you are to enjoy the film, best to let it wash over you. Think of it as an art film. Imagine you’re watching a video at MoCA or MoMA or Tate Modern. It’s more a sound and light show than a traditional spy thriller. Greengrass's desire to achieve an original look and feel may have gotten away from him; but an original look and feel in the action sequences he has achieved.

Nonetheless it has many of the trappings. Like other recent efforts, it has scenes of mission control -- CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia, known affectionately as “Langley.” Pamela Landy’s effort to unearth Jason Bourne and figure out why he was “killed” are no fun for CIA oldtimer Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), who has a secret he doesn’t want let out. So there’s intrigue on the “good side.” In fact as in the novels of John Le Carré it’s not at all clear what the “good side” is.

As in any good espionage thriller much of the fun of the Bourne movies is the locations, which range from a hot humid opening scene in Goa to a climax in the big bare snowy spaces of Moscow, with exotic travel spots like Morocco, Berlin, Amsterdam and Naples in between, not to mention Langley. And despite the lack of Bond-esque seductions, there’s the sexy former cohort of Jason, Nicky (Julia Stiles); and fleetingly, the cool Franka Potente.

The charm of these movies is that you enter a room fully expecting a karate fight with broken glass, plastic handcuffs, and packets of neatly printed new fake movie-money American dollars flying about. Everybody has a minimum of five or ten alternate passports and identities near at hand. What a travel fantasy! With a “go” from Langley, you’re off across the globe not only with the trip all paid for but a new moniker and an exciting mission. And all this is so far from any conceivable reality, espionage or other, that despite the speed and violence, it becomes surprisingly relaxing and enjoyable to watch.

The difficulty of the style Greenglass has heightened, in which the first fifteen minutes contain a mood of panic and everything is edited in two-second cuts, is that it’s hard to amp up the excitement – which is what any thriller is about (if nothing else) – and what you get is really increasingly eye-boggling. There are different ways of outdoing yourself. You could become wittier and sexier. Or you could just become faster, which is pretty much what The Bourne Supremacy opts for. The result is that the first quarter hour is just as good as the last, perhaps better, since it had all the potential, and much of the authentic non-digitalized physical action is wasted, because you can’t really make it out till you get a DVD and run it frame-by-frame or in slo-mo. But still you've got fun onscreen, and something a lot better than the average actioner with nothing better to offer than buxom babes, loud crashes, and Vin Diesel.

©Chris Knipp 2004

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