The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004)

The sequel to The Bourne Identity begins with Jason and Marie (Franka Potente) living in seclusion on a beach in India. When Jason is framed for a hit against his former department, an assassin comes looking for him. Bourne decides to take the fight to Treadstone, the secret organization that trained him, while continuing to try to remember his past. Joan Allen joins the franchise as Pamela Landy, who is in charge of the investigation into the hit for which Bourne has been framed. WARNING: MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS IN THE REVIEW.

The three most important truths that are central to The Bourne Supremacy are:

Americans are morally superior to terrorists or other assassins because when we kill innocent people we…well…feel bad about it;

Americans are morally inferior to the rest of the world because we are guilty of just about everything we condemn our enemies of doing;

and,

Assassins don’t kill people. Corrupt bureaucrats who control assassins kill people.

It’s not that every new movie needs to be read as a commentary on the United States’ military involvement in Iraq, but when the main character spends the last thirty minutes of a movie trying to put himself in a position where he can apologize to a woman whose family was the victim of his sanctioned violence, it is hard not to use his actions as a jumping off point for talking about America’s ambivalence at being the last superpower. Director Paul Greengrass is British, though, and the last half of the film relies on European locales and minimal dialogue, suggesting that it is being designed for an international audience. The genius of Bourne’s apology to the daughter of a Russian couple he comes to remember he assassinated is that it can be read equally well as a symbol of American superiority (we, unlike the rest of the political landscape, hold onto moral absolutes even while recognizing our own imperfections) and as a symbol of American reprobation (“Hey, I killed your parents, sorry about that, but not so sorry that I won’t keep on enjoying the fruits of my actions.”)

In a post-September 11 world, the opening act of the film is as important as it is predictable. Bourne may be the most powerful force in the world, but what he really wants is to be left alone to enjoy his freedoms. He goes on a morally justified rampage, however, when the assassin sent to kill him takes out Marie instead. I was sorry to see her go, because Potente lent a quiet sadness to her character and to the first film. Her death, though, was a necessary factor in two important action movie formulas. While oppression is morally reprehensible, revenge is a moral necessity, so Marie’s death provides the justification for unleashing Bourne’s inner fury. Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II was one of the first to apply the Rocky formula (hero gets the crap beat out of him then gets up and beats down the bully) to a political/military context, and it is perhaps telling about our current landscape that Supremacy, like Rambo, seeks to justify the hero’s actions by villifying his enemies rather than glorifying his cause.

The other formula that is served by Marie’s death is that the action hero must be a solitary male adolescent. Leslie Fieldler, in Love and Death in the American Novel, was one of the first to point out that American literature was largely constructed to glorify the solitary male figure in nature: Natty Bumpo, Huck Finn, Hemingway’s Santiago. For these characters (and by implication for the biological and emotional adolescents who consume their stories) domesticity equals death; women can’t complete them, they can only emasculate them. By freeing Jason from Marie, the film frees him to be, well free. He can act without constraints or consequences–which is, after all, the real American fantasy.

This is not to say that The Bourne Supremacy is a bad film. On the contrary, its reliance on stunts over special effects gives it a sort of honest plausibility that an I, Robot can only pine for. That plausibility is also a function of the times. Like its summer cousins, Spider-Man 2 and Alien vs. Predator, The Bourne Supremacy understands that its audience views being superpowered as equal parts curse and blessing. In modern sensibility, omnipotence only leads to corruption or idolatry; we want our heroes to be just powerful enough to protect us from evil but not so powerful as to present a threat in themselves. Oh, and we want them to be wounded enough that we are insulated from our natural tendency to envy them.

Matt Damon, like Potente, is a superb young actor who is both appealing to look at and capable of imbuing his character with an intelligence that makes even the more extreme moments of the film seem plausible. For most viewers, the car chases will get the heart beating, but for me the money shot of the whole film was one of Bourne looking at himself in the mirror. This shot lasts less than five seconds, but it implies through action (and acting) what the clumsier, more blatant “Marie wouldn’t want this” speech states overtly: redemption must require something more than merely being sorry.

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