Note: this section of the review is a slightly retooled version of what I wrote for the HD DVD release back in 2006.
Picking up some months after the events of The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy sees former CIA assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) holed up in Goa, hiding from his former employers while trying to piece together his fragmented memory. The comparative idyll of their new life is shattered, however, when an assassin (Karl Urban) shows up and forces them to go on the run again. As if this wasn't enough, the CIA, having reason to believe that Bourne was responsible for the assassination of two agents in Berlin, is also hot on his tail, led by the resolute Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Knowing that he could not possibly have been in Berlin at the time of the assassination, Bourne sets out to uncover the truth about this fit-up and, perhaps, his own identity.
Based on the novels of the late Robert Ludlum, the Bourne movies tread on deliciously fertile ground: a rogue agent who can't remember his own past forced to fend for himself in a world in which seemingly everyone wants him brought down, dead or alive. It's a shame, therefore, that, for a multitude of reasons, The Bourne Supremacy is not a patch on its predecessor. The main culprit is the script, which is all over the place, using the novel of the same name as little more than inspiration for a plot that is, for the most part, completely new. It's an unnecessarily convoluted affair featuring several different strands that never really come together in a satisfying way, and, even more damagingly, it lacks a human element.
In Identity, this was provided by Franka Potente's character, Marie. An innocent whisked head-first into a world of espionage, assassination and double-dealing, she effectively served as a point for the audience to relate to. We were in much the same position as her, and while the focus was primarily on Bourne, we got the feeling that we were seeing his actions through her eyes. Taking care not to give too much away, Supremacy lacks this crucial element and suffers considerably for it. Matt Damon is hardly the most charismatic of actors, and Bourne is such a blank slate that, try as the script might, it's impossible to get inside his head. He is also inconsistently characterised, which hurts his credibility. On the one hand, he is portrayed as a ruthless killing machine, capable of tearing through the streets of Moscow and causing any number of fatalities in the pile-ups he leaves in his wake. This suggests that he has no problem with collateral damage. On the other hand, we are expected to believe that he is tormented by his fragmented memories of an assassination he carried out in Berlin while working for the CIA. His quest to discover the truth about these memories results in the film's most mawkish scene, in which he confronts the daughter of his target and pours out his heart to her.
All of this is compounded by the film's visual style, a demonstration of all that is wrong with the current trend towards jittery, hand-held camerawork and abrupt, staccato editing. Literally every single shot in the film features the camera jumping around or swaying in an extremely nauseating manner, and while I understand the logic behind adopting such a style - the intention, after all, is to highlight the confusion of Bourne's state of mind and the uncertainty of the world he inhabits - it simply doesn't make for a pleasant viewing experience. With Identity, Doug Liman (of Go and Swingers fame), managed to find a balance between tricked-out camera gymnastics and the quieter moments that allowed the audience to catch its breath. With Supremacy, however, Paul Greengrass seems to have no interest in maintaining such an equilibrium. What makes this doubly sad is that hidden among it all are some really nice shots. While the experience is not quite as stomach-churning as something like The Blair Witch Project (which arguably was justified in its use of jittery photography), it is frustrating and, more often than not, simply looks amateur.
Despite its flaws, though, Supremacy still manages to be a watchable enough thriller for the most part. It's undeniably fun to see what sort of makeshift solution Bourne will come up with to solve any immediate problems, and, while Damon plays the character as little more than a plank of wood, he is thankfully surrounded by an able cast of adversaries, of whom Joan Allen makes the biggest impression. The globe-trotting aspect of the original film also remains, and, in the space of under two hours, we've travelled to locations as diverse as India, Russia and the Netherlands. The fact that all of this was shot on location also gives it a sense of legitimacy that TV shows like Alias, which has many of the same traits as the Bourne franchise, can only dream of. Furthermore, the action sequences, while not on the same level as those of Identity (the climactic car chase through Moscow seems calculated to one-up the similar Parisian sequence of its predecessor, but falls short of the mark) are suitably adrenaline-pumping, and the admirable lack of CGI gives the material a sense of authenticity that the average 21st century action movie can only dream of.
The Bourne Supremacy is ultimately slightly disappointing given the strengths of The Bourne Identity, but, for all its problems, it remains a competently executed and often enjoyable thriller. With more consistent characterisation of the lead character, a stronger attempt to humanise him to enable to audience to connect with his plight, and less abrasive camerawork, this could have been a top notch spy thriller. As it stands, however, it is left in the shade both by its predecessor and the 2006 Bond reboot, Casino Royale. In retrospect, it is comfortably the weakest of the three Bourne movies released thus far.
Blu-ray Disc Presentation
Released in 2006, The Bourne Supremacy was one of Universal's first HD DVD titles, released at a time when authoring houses were still getting to grips with the new VC-1 and AVC codecs. As a result, while the master used was top notch, with no evidence of digital de-enhancement techniques such as filtering, grain reduction or edge enhancement, the encoding at times left something to be desired. For the most part the results were pretty good, but at times the film's naturally rough, grainy look proved to be too much, resulting in some blocking artefacts, particularly in the backgrounds.
By contrast, the 2009 BD release looks pretty much perfect. Exactly the same master has been used, but Universal have made ample use of the increased disc space and bandwidth facilitated by BD, as well as the improvements made to encoding in the interim, and the result is that this new release has all of the HD DVD's strengths and none of its weaknesses. Detail levels are excellent (or at least as excellent as they can be given the continual use of blurry whip pans and jittery camerawork), and the grain is reproduced beautifully - considerably more so than on the HD DVD. Better yet, the compression artefacts that sullied that release are nowhere to be seen. Below are a couple of blow-ups showing the same frame on each release. The first is a fairly typical shot, suffering from minimal artefacting. The second is a particularly noxious example in which the delicate grain pattern momentarily becomes a sea of ugly blocks.
Finally, unlike its two stablemates, the UK release of The Bourne Supremacy has not had its location type and subtitles replaced by generic player-generated text. The original fonts are present and correct.
As with The Bourne Identity, the BD sees a welcome boost from lossy Dolby Digital-Plus to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Again, the audio track on the earlier release was already excellent, but this time round I can't say I noticed much, if anything, in the way of difference. Audio is always very difficult to rate, because you have to take into account both the sound designer's intent and the fact that side by side comparisons aren't particularly easy to pull off. I played Chapter 4's cross country car chase several times on both copies, even recording audio clips of the same 15-second stretch on each disc and listening to them blind, but couldn't bring myself to nail down a preference for one over the other. Certainly, there are no apparent improvements to the clarity, although some may mistake the fact that the lossless track has a slightly higher default volume for additional oomph.
Subtitles are provided in more languages than I care to count, English naturally being one of them. These cover the film itself as well as most of the extras (barring the commentary).
This BD release replicates all of the bonus features from the earlier HD DVD, including the interactive content previously known as Bourne Instant Access and standardised with Universal's usual "U-Control" moniker here. Essentially a cross between an audio commentary and a documentary, this feature runs alongside the film, and can be played in audio-only format, which essentially makes it feel like a regular commentary, or the "Total Experience", which causes a small window to pop up in the corner of the frame, showing everything from talking heads to behind the scenes footage, to deleted materials. It's actually a really great way to digest a whole lot of information, and while it does end up replicating quite a lot of the material found elsewhere on the disc, I suspect that, once HD home entertainment releases become the norm, these "In-Movie Experience" type extras will, to some extent, come to replace traditional commentaries and featurettes. Unique to the BD version are some daft online chat and "make your own commentary" options. Note that these features require a Profile 1.1 player.
Two other extras are included which didn't appear on the original standard definition release, but were featured on the later "Explosive Edition". These are The Bourne Mastermind, a short piece on author Robert Ludlum, and The Bourne Diagnosis, which gives a brief overview of the amnesic disorder afflicting Bourne. Neither of them are particularly meaty, but it's nice that Universal have tried to included as much material as possible with this release.
For the rest of the extras, it's business as usual, and there is a lot of material for dedicated extras aficionados to work through, most of it of a reasonable standard. In addition to an audio commentary by Greengrass and around five minutes' worth of deleted scenes, a number of featurettes of varying length have been included. These cover everything from the casting, to the score, to the commitment to avoid CGI in favour of practical effects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of emphasis on the stunts and action sequences - personally I would have preferred a more in-depth look at the adaptation process, an area in which the featurettes are disappointingly unforthcoming - but given the nature of the film, this is probably appropriate.
The bulk of these featurettes are unremarkable, but this release picks up extra marks for the excellent Instant Access feature, and for Greengrass' thoughtful and intelligent audio commentary, which to some extent addresses my complaint regarding the lack of focus on the adaptation in the featurettes. Overall Universal have put together a decent package in terms of bonus materials. There is a slightly haphazard feel to it all, but a little perseverance will result in some rather interesting material being uncovered.
The extras are presented in standard definition.
This BD release of The Bourne Supremacy is a great example of a studio harnessing improved technical specifications to provide the audience with a better viewing experience. While you'll be hard pressed to spot any difference between the old lossless audio track and its new lossless equivalent, the noticeably improved image quality is very welcome indeed, going as far as to make this one of the best-looking high definition presentations to date.