Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Jason Bourne is back! Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves of where he has been.

There's so much to love about The Bourne Supremacy, but let's not bury the lede: the film has the best car chase in the history of the movies. Okay, that might be an exaggeration. Probably isn't, but might be. I can't just dive in and talk about it, because the car chase, which appears almost all the way at the end of the film, is the culmination of everything that has gone into the movie up till that point, but I'd have never been able to get through the rest of the review if I didn't point that fact out right away.

Coming two years after The Bourne Identity begat a new conception of the superspy as a po-faced journeyman scrambling through a highly grounded world of grubby workaday espionage, The Bourne Supremacy does, I'm a little sorry to say, roll back on that a little bit. We're not remotely back to the fanciful levels of James Bond; not even James Bond at his most muted and grim. But whereas The Bourne Identity is resolutely small and unspectacular in every way possible, attempting to follow along at ground level as its protagonist grinds his way across Europe, The Bourne Supremacy has, well, a great car chase - two great car chases, in fact, but the first one really isn't a contender for Best Car Chase Ever honors - and you do have to sacrifice a little bit of realism if you're going to have those kind of action setpieces, even if The Bourne Supremacy very much uses an aesthetic based in documentary technique to make those setpieces seems as tethered to the real-life physics of streets and cars as can possibly be managed.

However, the film follows Identity's lead in at least one key way: it keeps things as small as it dares to while still fulfilling all of the goals of a big summertime event movie. It's a bit more explicitly invested in the real-world politics of Bush-era America, with a distinctly broader and angrier attitude towards the burly way U.S. intelligence agencies use and overuse power, and this gives it somewhat more of a sense of weight beyond the particular matter of Jason Bourne's (Matt Damon) immediate need to stay alive in the face of many people trying to kill him, but that's still the bulk of the film. Indeed, one might even argue that Supremacy takes things to an even smaller scale than Identity ever did: that film largely centered around the mystery of who Bourne was prior to be taken down with a case of amnesia, whereas Supremacy almost entirely drops that thread. As far as Bourne himself is concerned, this film is about nothing whatsoever other than survival for the majority of its running time.

In effect, Supremacy is a paring-down of an action movie to its most basic form. Run. Drive. Shoot. Don't die. Mostly presented without clarifying context. There's a purity about it that I greatly admire, and I admire as well the controversial aesthetic that brings it to life, which I regard as equally pure. The style comes entirely from director Paul Greengrass (and, if I understand the production history aright, it was Greengrass's promise to use this style that drew Damon back for a sequel), who'd used a version of it two years prior, in making Bloody Sunday: that film, still probably the director's best, is a re-enactment of an event from January 1972, in which an Irish protest against the British government ended in a shooting that left 13 unarmed individuals dead at the hands of British soldiers. Greengrass's approach to the material was to treat it more or less as if he was shooting a documentary, with the camera an active presence and participant in the events being depicted, which in practice means shaking handheld footage that races around chaotically, offering the impression of an immediate crisis that the cameraman is attempting to respond to on the fly. The Bourne Supremacy obviously loses the docudrama aspect of that technique, but retains the visceral sense of immediate presence, as cinematographer Oliver Wood and his extensive team of camera operators rattle the camera around, darting through scenes so jaggedly that they even manage to make Steadicam footage look shaky and confusing.

This aesthetic is not for everyone, to put it mildly: reports of nausea and headaches were plenty in 2004 and got even worse in 2007, when the next Bourne film doubled down on the style and went even more extreme with it. Even as much as I frankly adore the first two Bourne sequels, I wonder if it might have been better for the subsequent history of action cinema if they'd never been made. It takes a lot more to make this work than just deciding that waggling the camera like you were shooting during an earthquake makes action scenes more "intense", and I honestly don't know that any filmmaker other than Greengrass has the instinct for how to use it well; we've certainly seen plenty of attempts made in the 12 years since Supremacy won critical approbation and a sizable pot of money for its bold technique, and I'm honestly not sure if I can name a single one that's actually good.

But if we don't morbidly attend to the future, from the cozy vantage point of 2004, The Bourne Supremacy looks pretty fucking great to me. The movie's overall mood is of constant forward movement - not a one-speed-fits-all exercise in constant propulsion, which would have undoubtedly grown monotonous and tiring. The movie has plenty of opportunities to switch up its velocity: sometimes it's a burning fuse, as when Bourne stalks around a kitchen before engaging in a furious fistfight with an assassin (Marton Csokas); sometimes it's an entirely verbal barrage of speed and rhythm, like in all of the scenes in the CIA offices where the cold-blooded Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), this movie's government bureaucrat futilely trying to track Bourne, spits out words like bullets as she mows down a room full of operatives with her curt orders (if there was no other reason I preferred Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum to Identity, Allen's performance would be enough to do it). Sometimes, of course, it's a frantic, gorgeously kinetic car chase: the film first cranks the adrenaline all the way up during a scene where Bourne and his doomed girlfriend Marie (Franke Potente, whose short appearance is nonetheless more nuanced and interesting in her portrayal of constant tension mixed with love than anything she did in the last movie) have to race away from their blown safehouse, as John Powell's extraordinary score mercilessly beats on us, and Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse's editing leaves us with nothing to cling to but a sense of constant running - to what? from what? can't say, we're too busy moving as fast as possible away from a very present danger. It's the point where the movie's style of pure kinetics presents itself in all its glory, favoring a visceral empathic response in the viewer in lieu of an intellectual one (I've always privately felt that if The Bourne Supremacy actually makes you feel nauseous or dizzy - I never have - that's because it's working properly): we feel the scene rather than perceive it, and I love it so much I could almost cry.

Sometimes, the movie even brakes completely, as in the ghostly moment where Marie dies, in a blatantly unreal frame of ethereally toxic greens.

Anyway, the point of all this is that The Bourne Supremacy has a great many tricks at its disposal to imply a sense of endless high-speed urgency, and in 108 minutes it's done a great deal to run the audience raw. The constant shifting, bobbing camera in even the slowest scenes never lets us relax, so that every time action erupts, it feels like a natural extension of the constant tension we've been kept in. It's almost impossible, in fact, to draw a clear line separating "action" from "non-action" at certain points: a footrace through the Berlin public transit system, pushing through claustrophobically close crowd of people, blurs that distinction particularly well. And so we come at last to that climactic car chase, which is the culmination of everything the film has been playing at: constant movement for movement's sake, with the action's location in space barely defined, in favor of highlighting the instant-by-instant impact of every swerve and every crash: no other car chase in the movies that I can name so perfectly captures the sense of confusion and stress that this sequence provides for seven uninterrupted minutes. One feels the impact of cars and the road in every jolt of the camera and film-rending cut.

And then, when it's over, the film finally drops to a crawl for its penultimate scene, in which Damon gets to emote for the first time in two movies. I'm honestly not sure that the penultimate scene in question makes any narrative or emotional sense, honestly, but I like the impression it gives that there's a real-world ramification to all of the brutality that movies like this present as entertainment. I'm even less sure that I buy the very last scene, a last-minute addition that serves as prime audience bait, but is entirely unnecessary and arbitrary. And if there's any real complaint I have with the movie, it's that the last ten minutes thus all feel a little contrived. Oh well. The strengths are still amazing, and its pretty impressive how thoroughly and successfully the movie rewrote the vocabulary of action cinema. Not, ultimately, for the better, but in this case I can only profess awe for how well it was done this one time.

Reviews in this series
The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002)
The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007)
The Bourne Legacy (Gilroy, 2012)
Jason Bourne (Greengrass, 2016)