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Spy vs. Spy 

by Ed Symkus

Two years after the conclusion of this film's predecessor, The Bourne Identity, our hero (whom some would call an antihero), Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), is having bad dreams. They're out of focus and the action within them is jagged, and only little bits of them make sense before they wake him up and leave him in a cold sweat. But maybe these dreams are actually something good. Maybe they contain clues to his identity.

In order to really enjoy this sequel, you need to have seen the previous installment from the series of Robert Ludlum novels. In fact, we suggest you haul yourself down to the nearest video store and rent it again just to refresh your memory. You'll be one step ahead of Jason Bourne, who still has the amnesia that dogged him through the first film. He's put together enough pieces to realize that he's a James Bond-like professional killer, with passports galore under different names, the ability to speak in a variety of languages and the skills and wiles to get himself out of almost any physical jam and make whoever is on the other side either sorry or dead.

But at the beginning of the sequel, things are going pretty well for Bourne. He's living a relaxed life off the grid in a beachfront home in India with his lover Marie (Franka Potente), now unrecognizable in long brown hair. If you look closely, on the wall of their home, there's a photo of them together, and he's actually smiling.

But before long, it's obvious that this will be the only smile we'll see on his mostly grimacing face, as minutes into the film, there are bad guys after him, even though he's walked away from his old life of espionage. And soon after, almost as if in answer to today's real life reports of misinformation about weapons of mass destruction, his former employers, the "good guys" in the CIA, are convinced that he's gone bad and they, too, are after him.

All of this has happened barely 10 minutes into the film, yet the real story has hardly begun. Everything that does happen afterward can be summed up in the prophetic line of dialogue Bourne says to Marie: "I told them what would happen if they didn't leave us alone."

It's strange that the film's ads feature Damon's name, then a list of other actors, after which comes "and Joan Allen." The amazing chameleon of an actress has presented a solid list of performances over the years, from the troubled Pat Nixon in Nixon to the perplexed wife in Pleasantville and the well-meaning but vain and selfish mother in The Notebook. Here, as CIA agent Pamela Landy, who's so intent on bringing Bourne "to justice," it feels as if she could get out in the field and do it single-handed -- she plays it no-nonsense and steely eyed. It's her most domineering role yet, and it's a part she absolutely nails. "When I ask you where we stand," she says firmly to a subordinate, "I had better be impressed." For the record, she doesn't even smile in any photos.

Nobody smiles in this film. It's a grim story of an innocent person who's being hunted down for reasons beyond him. But in and around the grimness is a fascinating tale of how this amnesiac (who just wants to be left alone) regularly relies on some inner sense that keeps him ticking. He isn't just cat-like; he's a cat with a plan.

It's also a film that contains many elements that we've seen before, but done up in inventive new ways. Pretty much every spy thriller in the past four decades has featured at least a fistfight and a car chase. But the brutal, dizzying fight in this one is shot entirely in close-up, in a contained space, with only the sounds of fists hitting flesh and grunts accompanying the visuals. The absence of any music makes the sequence stronger. And the car chase -- ah, the car chase. Let's leave it at this: It's the best one since the astounding freeway masterpiece William Friedkin staged in To Live and Die in L.A.

One of the coolest things about watching this film is falling victim to the frantic pace of the editing by action veterans Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse (Rouse worked on the first Bourne). The cuts are fast and fierce, and cameras are always on the move, without in any way being jarring or overdone. But the Oscar nomination will go to the prolific John Powell, whose multi-textured original score jumps between being lilting, percussive and ethnic, and perfectly drives the film along.

The ending is a solid one that brings the story to a sensible conclusion. But if the film does well -- and it will -- there's plenty of wiggle room for another installment.

Publication date: 07/22/04

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