Paul Greengrass didn’t invent shakycam. The technique of frantic handheld camerawork and chaotic editing had been around for decades—first as an experimental film technique, then as a sort of action-movie shortcut—before Greengrass directed The Bourne Supremacy in 2004. In ’60s movies like The Battle Of Algiers, it was there for veracity, to lend documentary-film immediacy to the action onscreen. In ’90s action movies like The Rock, it was there to make a big, loud, noisy movie even bigger and louder and noisier. In The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass somehow did both. He used choppy filmmaking to mimic the immediate discombobulating effects of violence, to show how real-life fights and car accidents are disorienting, jarring affairs. In the process, he made a thrilling, crowd-pleasing action movie. He also helped create a culture where, for a while, every big American action movie had to make action scenes into incoherent blurs. The Bourne Supremacy is a great movie, but it’s got a lot to answer for.
The movie’s producers recruited Greengrass specifically because they thought he could bring that sort of dropped-into-bedlam intensity to a studio action movie. Greengrass, a former journalist from the U.K., had already directed Bloody Sunday, a movie about the 1972 massacre of Northern Irish protesters in Derry. It’s a tough, nerve-jangling watch. And when the producers decided they didn’t want to work once again with Bourne Identity director Doug Liman—a man notorious for causing chaos behind the camera rather than in front of it—screenwriter Tony Gilroy recommended Greengrass, and he got the job. Greengrass then went about remaking the franchise in his own image. He’s made three Bourne movies now, and the only post-Identity one that didn’t have Greengrass on board as director was The Bourne Legacy, the one made after Matt Damon temporarily walked away from the series.
Rewatching The Bourne Supremacy today, it’s striking how calm and composed and efficient the movie is. It’s certainly more scrambled than The Bourne Identity, but compared to the Greengrass Bourne movies that followed, or to the various imitators that trailed behind it, The Bourne Supremacy is remarkably coherent. The famous Munich-house fight between Matt Damon and fellow Treadstone assassin Martin Csokas—the one where Bourne deflects a knife attack with a rolled-up magazine—is a mad scramble, with quick cutting and cameras coming in from every angle. But you can still tell what’s going on. It’s not a disconnected whirl of images. And because of its legibility, that fight is nearly as great as the fight in the Paris apartment in the first movie. You get the sense that these two really are experts at hand-to-hand fighting, and it’s fun to watch people who are good at what they do.
The style, with its murky lighting and its grainy cinematography, also works because Supremacy is a darker, meaner movie than Identity. In Identity, we’ve got an audience surrogate in the form of Marie, the woman who gets swept up in Bourne’s escapes and who falls in love with him along the way. Supremacy does away with Marie quickly and brutally. During a tense car chase—one that makes great use of the chaos and congestion of streets in India—Marie gets shot in the head. We hear a quick scream and see her head jerk back, and that’s it. Bourne tries to save her, but she is gone. And that, more or less, is how the movie starts. It’s a cold splash of water, and it gives the movie even higher stakes than its predecessor.
If the movie seems unmoored after that, it should. Bourne himself feels the same way. Even before Marie’s death, we see Bourne, halfway recovered from the amnesia of the first movie, still struggling to put together the shards of his memories. And Bourne never again shows the tenderness that he shared with Marie in the first movie. When he gets pulled into an interrogation room in Naples, he stays silent as a tomb before he sees his opening and quickly neutralizes the CIA agent and the security forces in the room. He moves with intense, robotic force. He’s hard and efficient.
There’s still an emotive arc to the movie. Bourne learns that, in his past life, he’s killed an innocent couple because the man, a Russian politician, spoke out against corruption. And he survives a lot of shit to deliver what’s ultimately a limp and sad apology. But there are, of course, bigger forces than Bourne at work. Maybe even more than The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy is a post-9/11 action movie, one that uses our collective confusion and our new distrust of the people who are supposed to be protecting us. Today it seems weirdly prescient, what with the shadowy American bureaucrats getting rich by colluding with entrenched Russian power brokers who are doing whatever they can to stay on top.
Brian Cox, the movie’s bureaucrat villain, makes a more detestable heavy than Chris Cooper’s deranged jarhead in the first movie. Cooper at least seemed to have some idea that he was doing important work. Cox knows that he’s out for himself and that he’s killing innocent people to cover up his sins, and he makes whatever excuses he needs. He puts the blame on Bourne: “You killed Marie the minute you climbed in her car.” He delivers great classroom-bully put-downs to Joan Allen, who plays the well-meaning functionary who’s trying to make some sense of the mess: “You’re in a big pile of shit, Pamela, and you don’t have the shoes for it.” And just before he eats his own pistol, he’s still broadcasting his self-image: “I’m a patriot. I served my country.” And then: “I’m not sorry.” That asshole feels more real now than he did in 2004. It’s always the people making the biggest shows of their own patriotism who are doing the most nefarious shit.
It should be satisfying to watch Cox get his comeuppance, but it’s not really. Even after he dies, Bourne still has to go to Moscow, get into a massive car chase, and take out Karl Urban’s working-stiff assassin. (Urban has one truly great non-action scene: taking a phone call in a wild, hedonistic Moscow nightclub and then walking outside, where we see that he’s been partying in the middle of the day.) And when Bourne gets away, the point isn’t getting rid of a villain. The point is atoning for his sins.
That Moscow car chase is the one moment in the movie where the shakycam really gets out of control. There’s context for it; Bourne is injured, so he’s not able to process what’s happening around him as well. Greengrass illustrated that by not letting us process it either. But there’s a price there. The scene could’ve been a classic. Instead, it’s just impressively choreographed noise, and we don’t get to see that much of the impressive choreography.
That chase, sadly, is the movie’s legacy. In the years that followed, movies like Quantum Of Solace or the first Expendables would yada-yada their own action scenes, making a frenetic, kicky, crashy fog out of the parts that were always these movies’ main reason for existing. And we’re just finally getting out of that moment, thanks to movies, like Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick, that put care and craft into making sure that we know what’s going on, even in the craziest action scenes. A few directors are still learning that lesson, and one of them is Greengrass, whose 2016 franchise reboot Jason Bourne was among the worst offenders in recent memory. Still, for a while there, Greengrass got away with it. Nobody else really did. Nobody else really could.
Other notable 2004 action movies: The runner-up for 2004—and the movie I almost ended up writing about—was, in a lot of ways, the complete opposite of The Bourne Supremacy. The French director Pierre Morel’s parkour exploitation lark District B13, a Luc Besson production, is a total blast, and it has absolutely no dramatic stakes. It’s a bald Escape From New York rip about a French gangster stealing a nuclear warhead and about the quest of two parkour guys to get it back. It’s bright and funny and built entirely around its action scenes, which are incredible. The movie’s two stars, David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli, do ridiculous things—leaping across rooftops, leaping through windows, leaping over speeding cars—and you can always tell exactly what’s going on.
Bourne aside, American action movies didn’t have an especially inspired year. Tony Scott, whose late-period movies are nearly as guilty for spreading the shakycam virus as anything Greengrass did, had a big hit with the turgid revenge flick Man On Fire, a movie whose reputation rests almost entirely on a strong Denzel Washington performance that the movie doesn’t really earn. National Treasure, a knowingly absurd Indiana Jones bite with Nicolas Cage as an adventurer deciphering ancient clues left by America’s founding fathers, left America dumber. The Rock got to do some fun movie-star stuff in the otherwise barely there remake of the hicksploitation classic Walking Tall. The Punisher, the second of three attempts to turn Marvel’s iconic vigilante figure into a movie character, tripped itself up on the idea that Frank Castle should find himself a lovable family of comic-relief misfits. And Torque tried a little too hard to ride the Fast And The Furious wave.
The franchise picture was grim. Blade: Trinity turned out to be a sad end to a great series, wasting what was in retrospect a pretty amazing cast by trying to turn a blood-drenched character into something that could pull down a PG-13 rating. (Blade II director Guillermo Del Toro had better luck with Hellboy, another comic book adaptation, but that’s more of a special-effects movie than an action flick.) And Alien Vs. Predator turned two iconic franchises into a dogshit-ass content mill, forgetting anything that was ever scary or cool about either race of interstellar monsters.
On the margins, though, some great things were happening. Michael Mann’s Collateral might be more of a thriller than an action movie, but it had some of the same regular-guy-in-impossible-situation thrills as Die Hard. David Mamet’s Spartan had Val Kilmer as a secret service agent on a mission to rescue the president’s daughter from human traffickers, killing a whole bunch of motherfuckers in terse and artful ways. And as much as I hate including a parody in this column, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police had more fun with action-movie tropes than most action movies were having at the time.
Overseas, it was a different story. Hong Kong had a banner year. Johnnie To had Breaking News, about a standoff between cops and thieves that plays out on live TV, and Throw Down, about a faded judo champion returning to competition. And Stephen Chow had Kung Fu Hustle, a giddy tribute to old martial arts movies that took almost as much inspiration from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Meanwhile, in mainland China, Zhang Yimou had the gorgeous post-Crouching Tiger wuxia epic House Of Flying Daggers, a movie with some of the straight-up prettiest fight scenes ever put to film.
But in terms of sheer brutality, all those movies fade away when compared to Thailand’s Born To Fight, a truly ridiculous stunt-fest full of actors doing things that would be absolutely illegal if any Hollywood director ever tried to replicate them. The climactic scene, with guys jumping back and forth between the roofs of two trucks as they speed through the desert, is an absolute headfuck, mostly because you can tell that these guys are really throwing each other off of speeding trucks.
Next time: Donnie Yen, one of our greatest movie stars, introduces MMA-style fight choreography with the fast, impactful, glorious Hong Kong movie Kill Zone.