Post Millennial Malaise 10: The Bourne Supremacy

In Which the Camera Starts Shaking

In 2002 three action espionage movies graced theaters: Die Another Day, xXx, and The Bourne Identity. While both Bond and Cage duked it out to be the coolest, hippest, and “not your daddiest” of the spies, it was Bourne that snuck away with all the cultural cred. Sloughing off the overblown aesthetics of turn of the millennium blockbuster filmmaking, Identity reformulated what could be expected from the Hollywood machine. Tactile action, on the ground settings, and a comparatively realistic view of spy-craft. It also allowed for a more piercing look towards America’s foreign policy complex, effectively turning the wheels of our government into a faceless and cruel machine that spits out its functionaries.

These elements were transformative for what an audience could expect from their action movies, especially after the post-Matrix explosion of gaudy, pumped up spectacle, but it is also not how the Bourne series is remembered. These days the word Bourne is associated with a chaotic handheld camera style and impressionistic editing techniques. And while there was a bit of that in the first entry, it’s in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, with the arrival of director Paul Greengrass, that the modern style of the shakycam was, uh, born.

Usually I wouldn’t cover another installment in a franchise so close to the first, but Supremacy is an important film to touch upon sooner rather than later because it became the lodestone of action filmmaking for the next decade or so after its release. With the sheen of the martial arts, gun-fu, hyper choreographed style waning the impact of what Greengrass does with Supremacy cannot be understated. This is the movie, depending on who you talk to, that ruined action filmmaking for a decade. A style that emphasized pure imperceptibly over the cleanliness and comprehensibility of a scene.

This sentiment is both wholly reasonable and an unfortunate retcon of what The Bourne Supremacy  is actually like. For as much as Greengrass does use chaotic camera moves, jump cuts, and whirling whip pans, it’s also a very considered affair. This isn’t a sloppy or slapdash, but carefully choreographed and organized. The shaking of the camera exists here to serve a direct purpose, to bring the viewer into the tumult of on the ground spy life, and it’s a shame that the legion of pale imitators have caused this particular entry to loose some of the novelty and excitement that originally existed.

Greengrass, and returning screenwriter Tony Gilroy, also hit upon something important when transitioning to the new look of the franchise. If things are going to get more visually chaotic, then the narrative presented on screen has to be simpler and more coherent. Identity had a pretty clean narrative itself, built around Bourne’s emergence from amnesia and romance with Marie, but here the story is even simpler. There’s one event that the story is wound around, and the elements all tie together neatly (in a Hollywood way to be sure). It’s a testament to this efficiency that Supremacy just barely cracks 100 minutes before credits. It’s a machine for style and tone.

Here Bourne is keeping a low profile in India as he tries to scrape more of his memories together and negotiate a life with Marie. Unfortunately for a movie super spy, you can’t stay out of the game for long, and Bourne is reeled back into a web of intrigue when he’s framed for a CIA assignment gone wrong and targeted by an assassin who kills Marie instead of him. So it’s off to Berlin to discover why he’s been put back into the hot seat and uncover what mysteries in his past has led to the current moment.

Bourne as a franchise became the touchstone for post 9/11 politics in an interesting way, and is evidenced pretty cleanly by the narrative cooked up for Supremacy. Nothing in the movie directly relates to the ins and outs of what was actually consuming the world in 2004. No mentions of the middle east, nothing about the World Trade Center Attacks, and no murmurings of full scale conflict elsewhere. But it does posit the whole apparatus of US foreign policy as something at best flawed to the point lethality, and at worst a whole criminal enterprise concocted to enrich faceless bureaucrats in formless rooms.

These notions were hinted at in the first film, but they fully flourish here, as the architects of Bourne’s misery are indeed the same people who made him the agent as he exists. Indeed the elevation of Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) to the level of patronizing and perfidious mastermind puts in stark relief how the series views the institutions that it portrays. Yes some people might want to do good in the world, like the straight minded Pamela (Joan Allen), but their good intentions are constantly subsumed by duplicitous wheels within wheels machinations. Goals swallowed whole by the possibility of turning someone into a weapon, burning them, and getting rich.

Which brings us back to the style presented by Greengrass and company. What distinguished Identity from its contemporaries was it’s commitment to deglamorizing the spy profession, what Supremacy does is fully turn the world of espionage into an arduous chore. Yes there are plenty of thrills to be found within in the frame, but at no point would an audience member look upon what is onscreen and be excited to enter the world of Bourne.

Because he lives a life of paranoia and hardship, stuck in a Kafkaesque system where he is constantly hunted for actions he can’t recall. It’s a cycle that condemns the world that it creates. Turning men into machines is only a process for evacuating humanity on both sides. And when that humanity returns its painful and hardscrabble. See in the action where Bourne performs his masterful parkour, but still ends up hurting a leg and limps away. Or the corollary with the pen in the first film where Bourne turns a magazine into a weapon, the life of the spy transforms the world into a place of large and small scale combat. In fact the final grand car chase is all for Bourne to apologize for previous actions, he suffers because of the people who created him.

This action is also much more clearly displayed on screen than one might remember given the extent of down talk the so called shakycam style has received. Years of bad replicants and tales of people getting nauseous have sapped away the film’s obvious merits when it comes to being an action spectacular. There are a few points I would like to highlight about Supremacy that makes it work. One is that the editing eschews the common process of cutting on action, and instead works to cut before or after a strike. It helps the impact that is mostly dissolved in imitators and is to the great credit to the editors  Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson for making sure such shots were in.

But it all speaks to planning and choreography as well. Much of the dismissal of the shakycam style is that it removed the consideration of planning an action sequence. That one could simply swing the camera wildly to get nominal coverage and put the rest together in post. That is simply not the case in Surpemacy, where each big beat is obviously well thought out ahead of time. Think of the fight Bourne has with former Treadstone agent in Berlin. The sequence is in a confined space, but there are a variety of tools for each combatant to acquire and use. It’s a steady build of attack and counter attacks that include the household objects available, one that involved precise planning to pull off. The magazine feels like an improvisation, but has to be something set up to be used.

Same goes with the spectacular final car chase, one of the finest of the decade. It’s notable that the car Bourne claims is a yellow taxi. A vehicle of bright coloration that distinguishes itself from the Moscow streets. The splash of color always allows the viewer to keep their eye on the vehicle no matter what the camera or cutting does, and when a big crash does occur, it happens in medium shots to highlight the damage each vehicle received.

But even if the effect is still, well effective, here, it’s undeniable that the impact was a net negative on how people saw the way forward for action movies. I still think the first three Bourne films are unquestionably excellent entries into the action canon, but the tumult of the shakycam era is still a burden that is hard to bare. Not helped by what felt like useless re-treading of material in the last two films put forward. The shock of it has completely worn out it’s welcome now, and the burden of the franchise is now one of spoiler, rather than a forward thinker. Still  Supremacy is an excellent flick in and of itself, and foreshadowed a few good developments for the spy films it beat out.

Odds and Ends

  • I have to admit that the quick dispatching of Marie is a disappointing follow through on the relationship Bourne has. Just another dead girlfriend to help justify our hero’s revenge.
  • No Oscar push for this film, but it did get multiple nominations from the MTV Movie Awards and the Teen Choice Awards.
  • Marton Csokas pops up again this week as another Eastern Bloc bad guy for the post Cold War world. If you match a type, might as well lean into it.
  • Though there are plenty of car chases and shoot outs here, it’s interesting that a bulk of the action present are elaborate foot chases. Sequences where Bourne has to outmaneuver his enemies by slipping through crowds and climbing around buildings. This style is, even more than the shakycam, what I think the Craig Bond films pull from here.