"Slick" and "subtle" aren't words that normally go together in Movieland. For a triple whammy, throw in "gritty", too. You can count the blockbusters that meet all three criteria on the fingers of one hand.
But The Bourne Identity was one of them: a grand espionage movie that didn't sacrifice intelligence for thrills, refused to spoonfeed audiences and used humour to boost rather than undercut its tension. Oh, and it also boasted the nastiest hand-to-hand combat sequence since Grosse Pointe Blank, not to mention a Mini chase that showed The Italian Job remake how it should have been done.
Following that was always going to be tricky, but The Bourne Supremacy is a gutsy try. Blurring up the visuals to match a murkier morality, Bloody Sunday director Paul Greengrass has made a much darker movie than Doug Liman's original. It may go for a standard Hollywood thriller plot but for once, few punches are pulled. People die, and die horribly, and the human consequences of Bourne's past as a cold-blooded killer aren't ignored.
The ever-excellent Joan Allen joins the cast as a CIA chief on Bourne's trail, while Lord Of The Rings bit-parter Karl Urban pops up as a swarthy Russian hit-man. All the punch, however, is in the returning players. Franka Potente and Julia Stiles both reappear to good effect, as does the majestic-yet-excessive Brian Cox as espionage veteran Ward Abbott. (Could anyone else spit out lines like, ""You're in a puddle of shit, Pam - - and you're wearing the wrong kind of shoes"" and keep a straight face?)
For all that, it's Matt Damon who makes things tick. Vicious when in action, a confused boy when not, Damon is a fantastic Bourne - - James Bond as Frankenstein's monster, a tortured creation just wanting to be normal. Anyone who thinks that Damon's got an easy job here or that he's a wooden performer needs their head looking at. But - and there's always a "but", isn't there? - - you still walk away from Supremacy feeling disappointed. Darkening the tone hasn't just done away with the original's humour, it's also slowed the pacing. Action sequences aren't as regular, nor do they satisfy as much. Worse, they often invite niggling comparisons with the first film, a hand-to-hand scrap in a small apartment and a cops-versus-Bourne car-chase through a major city both looking like pale copies. Greengrass has moved the story on to a richer emotional landscape; he should have extended the physical territory, too.
The end result is still good - - heck, few films this year are going to be as exciting. But there's no use fooling yourself: it simply isn't as good as Identity.