Film: The Tent Pole Outsider

Highfalutin' Paul Greengrass remakes the summer blockbuster with The Bourne Supremacy

Jul 21, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Danger continues to follow assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and friend Marie (Franke Potente) in director Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Supremacy.

LOS ANGELES — The name has now been claimed but an alternate title, both provocative and pertinent, for 2002's spy thriller The Bourne Identity could have been I, Robot.

As part of the CIA's secret Treadstone Project, Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, was programmed to become a remorseless assassin without a past. Or was he built that way from spare parts? His family history was as blank as any robot. He often acted like an indestructible piece of trained artificial intelligence. He was cold about things, like music, that any other human would respond to.

Now, in the new sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, based on, though changed from, Robert Ludlum's Bourne books, we see a flashback in which Bourne shoots a woman in the face, point-blank. In that key scene, Bourne's ice-cold demeanor becomes understandable. (The film opens nationwide Friday.)

"He's the ultimate American machine — weapon, whatever," Matt Damon, who plays Bourne, says in a press interview at an L.A. hotel.

And in the new Bourne Identity special-edition DVD, his co-star Franke Potente refers to Bourne's actions as "robotic."

As the clues begin to mount in the second film — including a crucial piece of slipped information about Bourne's origins that could also be disinformation — it does seem he is human, after all. But Bourne is locked in warfare with his dark side — call it his "machine side," "weapon side," "robot side." Whatever.

In Bourne Identity, something happened to give Bourne total amnesia, and he was left with an existential struggle for meaning. Meanwhile, those who already knew who he was were trying to kill him. Doug Liman's direction and Tony Gilroy's storytelling mirrored his struggle by crossing American action with a European-style downbeat, brooding art-film approach. This was a film that wanted to get at what it meant, at its most primal level, to be human.

In Bourne Supremacy, most of the action occurs amid the unromantic, even alienating urban spaces of Berlin and Moscow. After finding a measure of peace at Identity's conclusion, Bourne again finds himself on the run from hit men and the CIA. But he also has time to learn about and even question his past actions, leading to an unexpected late-movie confrontation in Moscow with one of the victims of his CIA-instigated acts of violence.

"I think the most important thing about Bourne is that he's not a superhero," says Paul Greengrass, Bourne Supremacy's director. "And he's an absolute duality. There is very little to the character — you never know anything about him. Essentially, he is half coming out from the darkness and half trapped in that place. You know one thing: He's trying to reach the light.

"That's the drama of the character," Greengrass says. "Matt can take this absolutely stripped-down character and play that duality all the time. He does it with emotional realism. The idea is Bourne's a real man, really there. You could look at your streets and he's there, at the train stations and at restaurants and he's really there."

For Greengrass, that realism is extremely important. This is the first Hollywood project for the 48-year-old British director. Primarily, his work has been in documentaries and small-budget documentary-like political dramas — Bloody Sunday, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence — based on violent events. Bloody Sunday, which won the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival, had a breathtakingly verité style, using swinging, handheld cameras as a protest march in Northern Ireland turned deadly.

With his long, flowing brown hair streaked with gray, and his wrinkled, long-sleeve shirt, rolled up to his elbows, Greengrass looks and talks like an old British hippie. During this private interview in his suite, he wears wire-rimmed spectacles with gold-metal edges, jeans and sneakers. A tall man, he has a quiet voice that can drift off into casual asides.

Greengrass comes across as cautious during the interview. He has been turned loose amid the sunny weather and luxury hotels of L.A. for this big-studio (Universal) press junket. Frankly, it unnerves him a little: He's a long way from his roots in the politically engaged British cinema television with the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Not long after using the word "frisson" in an answer to a question, he asks, "Am I being too highfalutin'?" He's genuinely worried about fitting in to the Hollywood milieu. He fears appearing too intellectual.

"The films I've made have pretty much been mine," he says. "This was a bit like taking a commission, if I was an architect, to build a big civic building. I never thought I'd get the opportunity. But it needs to seem right.

"Why was this the right one for me? I had seen Bourne Identity on a whim, and what I loved about it was the marriage between European style and sensitivity and a mainstream commercial film.

"It's been very interesting from my point of view to join with a group of people and go on this journey, ending with a finished film. Together, I think we've done pretty well — that's obviously what I feel."

The director's rough-hewn authenticity and political sensibilities earned him the Supremacy job after Identity director Liman dropped out. This film continues with the first's intentional post-9/11 sensibility — a melancholy sobriety about blood spilled and lives lost.

"Bourne is a character who comes from the world of violence, and he's striving to address the world without it," Greengrass says. "It was interesting to me to make a mainstream film with these issues."

It's worth noting that Bourne has several car chases, including a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am one on the streets of Moscow that's a showcase of massive crunch and crash. But it's far different in style from the traditionally voyeuristic thrills of comparable ones in, say, Lethal Weapon 4 or Gone in 30 Seconds. It is so internalized, so presented from Bourne's frantic viewpoint, you can't really even tell what is happening objectively.

"I suppose there is a viscerality to what I do that I think makes people feel they're living it," Greengrass says. "It doesn't look like a movie."

That chase is, in essence, just a build-up to a far quieter scene in which Bourne meets the surprised, confused victim of one of his past acts of violence. Tense and unpredictable, the confrontation belongs to the realm of intense dramatic films far more than thrillers. As a result, it's risky, and Greengrass believes, absolutely critical to the film.

"That scene is for me what it's all about. I'm as proud of that scene as I am of what Bloody Sunday had to say, or Stephen Lawrence," he explains. "This film is built to take a broad audience on a journey where they are emotionally compelled in that sequence. You want to bring them out into the car parks feeling that they had one moment that intersects with their lives. That would be one little thing that makes Bourne Supremacy special in the market amongst the other big films."

Another, of course, would be that its producers were brave enough to hire a serious, up-from-the-cinematic-edge director like Greengrass to attempt a summer blockbuster. ©