2012 Update: It’s been eight years since the release of The Bourne Supremacy, which has, over time, become my favorite in the Bourne franchise to revisit. (This weekend, the series gets an unnecessary fourth episode).

The original remains the strongest in terms of storytelling. But the sequel’s sense of momentum, its deepening of Jason Bourne’s character, and its spectacular action bring me back again and again. (It has developed a reputation for having unleashed confusing, chaotic action scenes. Maybe they confused you, but I found them to be thrilling and imaginative.)

As per usual, I found myself in agreement with Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), who wrote that Supremacy follows “in the tradition of the best sequels. There’s more plot and more action, and if the first film’s leavening human contact and flashes of low-key humor are virtually gone, Bourne’s humanity, and the moral and tragic dimensions of his situation, are ultimately brought into sharper focus.” He, too, considers this installment superior to the original. “Watching [the original], I was intrigued by the hero’s dilemma. With The Bourne Supremacy, I find myself caring both about the hero himself and about the story. [This] is one of the best thrillers in a long time.”

Too bad the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) couldn’t find more story to tell; it’s basically a blast of action that tries to hide the fact that all of the important revelations have already happened. I never got around to writing a full review, but my reaction, which I posted at artsandfaith.com, included these words:

What a strange movie. The choreography and execution of the action scenes has taken several steps forward… and the storytelling has taken several steps backward. Thus, yeah, it’s a rush, but it’s the emptiest rush of the three, and thus, for me, the most unsatisfying. It felt the action scenes had been stripped from a real movie, robbing us of the scenes about plot and character development. The Albert Finney finale? The big reveal? What a letdown. Unimaginative, preachy, forced.

And how’s the fourth film, which stars Jeremy Renner instead of Matt Damon? Well, I’ll post my review tomorrow.

Anyway, here’s my original review of that fantastic second film, The Bourne Supremacy.

There was once a hero who worked for the government. He served his superiors with excellence and did what they asked him to do. But then his conscience got in the way — something they hadn’t expected. He ended up on the run, his former boss heavily armed and in hot pursuit.

His name was David and his boss was King Saul. That was, of course, a long time ago, but the story is one that still thrills audiences.

Robert Ludlum may have thought about David’s desperate plight when he penned the novels about Jason Bourne. Or, perhaps the connection never occurred to him. Whatever the case, it’s the same thrilling premise and audiences are caught in its grip again.

The first book in the series, The Bourne Identity, published in 1980, was recently rewritten as a screenplay and re-conceptualized as a present-day adventure in 2002. With Matt Damon in the lead, the film became one of the most intelligent and entertaining spy films of the last decade. While it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, the film’s crowd of admirers has grown since its DVD release, and the “Hollywood powers that be” smelled a potential profit, so now we have a sequel. And, like most of the many sequels released in 2003, it seems to be satisfying the expectations of the fans…a rare feat for an Episode Two.

The first film’s director, Doug Liman, has moved aside; The Bourne Supremacy is directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) with a slick, fast-paced style that is dizzying audiences and, in some cases, distressing critics. The style is just similar enough to the original to keep us from being disoriented, and yet Greengrass has unique tricks up his sleeve. He embraces the much-maligned quick-cut style of Michael Bay, but packs so much information into the kaleidoscopic, adrenalin-rush approach that we’re drawn in out of an eagerness to absorb things without being bludgeoned to the back of the theatre.

The machine-gunning imagery works well for another reason: it parallels the ability of its hero to gather information of all sorts from a quick glance around the room. We’re seeing so much so fast, it’s hard to believe that Bourne can walk into such chaos and quickly conspire a plan that he proceeds to carry off as successfully as Thomas Crown pulling off a masterful heist.

What Greengrass doesn’t have, however, is a script that’s as character-driven as The Bourne Identity. That film spent a good deal of time exploring Bourne’s personality through his dialogue with other characters, especially Marie (Franka Potente), the spontaneous and spirited young woman he practically hijacked along the way.

This time, Bourne has to strike out on his own in order to chase down the CIA operatives who are after him again. He has to leave Marie behind (much to the dismay of fans who fell in love with her last time), track down the CIA agents who are gunning for him, and “bring the fight to their doorstep.” He’s got to deliver an ultimatum so they will butt out of his life. The Bourne Supremacy is an exhibition of his “supreme” talents in avoiding capture and executing justice, but because he’s flying solo this time, he has very little dialogue, very little opportunity to reveal more about himself to the audience. That’s unfortunate.

Nevertheless, the superlative action of the film makes it first-rate summer entertainment. There are so many threats coming his way that he has too much to worry about than to spend time chatting. His brain remains fractured by amnesia, and he is haunted by fragments of old memories in which he is carrying out his orders as a killing machine for the government. Bourne lives in hiding, hoping the CIA will leave him alone. But his two-year sabbatical ends abruptly when he is framed for the murder of some CIA agents, and the agency comes after him, led by Pam Landy (the imperious Joan Allen, giving her best impression of a sharp-eyed, golden-crested eagle hunting her prey). Meanwhile, he’s also being stalked by the fellow who framed him, a Russian assassin named Kirill (Karl Urban, who played Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), who wants to quietly erase Bourne in order to keep the CIA on the trail of a ghost.

As Landy digs up all the information she can on Bourne, Bourne tries to direct her attention to Kirill’s conspiracy. Yep, it’s The Fugitive all over again. Meanwhile, Ward Abbott (Bryan Cox), the CIA boss who tried to eliminate Bourne in the first film so he could save his political career, again crawls out from under his rock. Abbott watches Landy’s progress so he can pick the right moment to make his move and ensure that Bourne will not reveal any information about the illegal covert operations he used to perform under Abbott’s orders.

And so, as the CIA charges toward Bourne, and as Kirill charges him from the side, Bourne takes them both on. It’s difficult to play “chicken” with more than one oncoming car, but Bourne’s a tricky enough driver to do it.

And speaking of driving…

The Bourne Supremacy features what may be the most spectacular car chases ever filmed. Part drag-race through crowded streets, part demolition derby, they give the audience a front-bumper view of absolute chaos. There’s a chase at the beginning to frazzle your nerves, and then there’s one at the end that’ll probably fry your entire circuit board and knock out power for the whole neighborhood. At the end of the amazing race of the film’s finale, I had to pry my fingers loose from the arms of my theatre chair.

However, it might seem that this revved-up finale is gratuitous to the rest of the storytelling. I’d have a hard time arguing with that conclusion. It feels like one of the villains is allowed to stay alive merely for the excuse of a finale that leaves us hyperventilating. But when an action scene is crafted to perfection like that one, it becomes its own defense. What is more, both The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy handle violence with a sort of dismay. They avoiding excessively gory shots, often turning the camera away from the victim and focusing instead on the face of the killer, which reveals so much more and raises questions of conscience. Chase scenes, on the other hand, are filmed with a contagious glee, and it’s hard to find anything to fault there. This is a grownup’s version of Road Runner cartoons.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t end with eye-candy action. The movie concludes (I’ll say this as vaguely as possible) with a scene of redemption that gives the film just enough heart, just enough character development to leave us craving the next chapter in Bourne’s story. Without that scene, this film would have amounted to little more than a grade-A exercise in chase scenes. With it, The Bourne Supremacy becomes a film with a soul.

It’s not nearly as substantial as the story of David running from Saul. But Bourne is a hero who’s about more than mere survival, and who keeps thoughts of vengeance at a distance, setting him apart from so-called heroes of films like Man on Fire and The Punisher. Like Spider-Man‘s Peter Parker, his conscience and sense of responsibility set him apart as an admirable hero.

Damon picks up right where he left off, making Bourne a consistent, driven, intelligent, and yet vulnerable hero who hates the very talents that save his life again and again. Where James Bond’s actors merely glamorize their own personalities, and Indiana Jones relies on a hat and a bullwhip to give his character identity, Jason Bourne is a three-dimensional human being with powers that toe the line of comic book superheroes. He’s been created by Damon in collaboration with Ludlum’s source material, a unique character quite distinct from Damon’s other roles. It’s too bad Academy voters will fail to notice his fantastic performance. He deserves any acclaim he receives for proving that action movies can become something far more substantial when their actors overcome ego, work hard, and get the job done right.