The Bourne Supremacy
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum
Starring Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Franka Potente, Julia Stiles


The Bourne Supremacy

These days it seems as though the studios are letting just about anyone who's ever held a camera direct a film. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it's a dreadful mistake, as when producers hand out scripts to new directors as though they were party favors, instead of potential works of art. One way it doesn't work is when the director mistakes a suspense film script for an action film script. In an action film what we see on the screen is what we get: shootings, car chases, stunts, the choreography of motion. The camera is fluid, the editing is fast and tense. The master director of action films was John Woo in his Hong Kong years ("A Better Tomorrow," "Hard-Boiled"), who staged and shot his chases and confrontations better than anyone before or since.

But suspense is another world. You cannot shoot a suspense film as though it were an action film. In the best suspense films each shot, each moment carries unbearable tension. And tension comes from holding the shot, not from chopping it up into little pieces. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense films, knew that suspense is created out of simplicity. His camera was an observer, calmly and quietly watching the people on screen, letting the terror - our terror - build at its own pace. Whatever action there was came in the service of the tension. For example: a good man is mistakenly taken for a villain; he's in a box, trapped between the real villains and the police. Hitchcock lets us watch while his hero squirms, runs, invents an escape, is trapped, blunders, then frees himself and turns the tables on his enemies. Hitchcock would cut to another shot when it was necessary but not a moment before; it was the people on the screen who were important, not the shots themselves.

All of which is by way of saying that the director of "The Bourne Supremacy," Paul Greengrass (the re-created documentary "Bloody Sunday"), has managed to turn a perfectly good suspense film into a very bad action film. "The Bourne Supremacy," following 2002's "The Bourne Identity," stars Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, former CIA assassin now retired with his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) to a shack on the beach in Goa (and what happened to her flower shop on the Riviera? Oh, well, maybe the Indian government offered the studio a better deal.). A Russian assassin locates them and shoots at Jason, missing him but killing Marie (so long, Franka; no need to bring you back for the third film in the series).

Now Jason, who has amnesia, tries to piece together what's going on and heads back to Europe. Meanwhile, the bad guys kill two CIA agents in Berlin and frame Jason so that the CIA will go after him. Which it does; the CIA team is headed by Joan Allen, giving by far the best performance in the film as a tightly wound but very perceptive executive. Now Jason must find a way to prove his innocence and stay ahead of both the CIA and the villains. This is classic suspense; whatever the action, it must serve the suspense.

But this is where director Greengrass completely misunderstands his film. He shoots and edits with a frantic, uncontrollably nervous hand. No shot is held more than a few seconds; what should be seen in one shot is done in three or five or ten, without any justification other than what I assume is a misguided attempt to ratchet up the tension. He uses hand-held shots when a steady camera is needed, he overcuts mercilessly, he jumps from location to location (titles spell out "Berlin: Germany." "Paris: France." "Moscow: Russia." And my favorite: "New York: New York.").

Some critics are talking about this film's car chase through the streets of Moscow - an attempt to outdo the car chase in the first Bourne film. But where that had at least some relevance to the plot, this one has no justification or believability; it leads only to a quick and pathetic revelation that is just left dangling anyway. What could have been if not a masterpiece at least a terrific suspense film has been fatally undermined by an ignorant and misguided director, and changed into a tedious and derivative action film. We already have plenty of those to go around.