Well, here's a new one -- a sequel that outpaces the original. For me, 'The Bourne Supremacy' joins the select ranks of such follow-ups as 'Aliens,' 'X2' and 'The Empire Strikes Back' in surpassing the film that spawned it. Perhaps 'Supremacy' is not necessarily a classic on the order of some of those I just mentioned, but it is no small compliment nonetheless. Because 1999's 'The Bourne Identity' was already a crackerjack thriller, and a tough act to equal let alone better. But now along with its sequel, I would say that yes, these are two of the best spy pictures in recent memory since the glory days of the James Bond franchise.
When we meet up again with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) as 'The Bourne Supremacy' begins, he has set up a new life with Marie (Franke Potente) and promises retaliation should anyone from his former life as a CIA assassin attempt to contact him. But when a CIA operation to purchase classified Russian documents is blown by a rival agent (Karl Urban), he shows up to kill Bourne and Marie in the sleepy seaside village where they have been living under assumed names. His new life shattered, Bourne will soon discover that you can never fully escape the past, and is plunged into a life-or-death struggle that will pit him not only against his formidable opponent but the most corrupt corners of the CIA itself.
I liked everything about 'The Bourne Supremacy' better than the first. The story, the characters, the action and the cast. But what I appreciated the most is that the script and the filmmakers give Bourne more to do than just outrun bullets and crash cars. 'Supremacy' is not just another cookie-cutter James Bond sequel, but continues Bourne's emotional and spiritual journey. Seriously, it's the last thing you would expect from an action movie, but 'Supremacy' has a genuine theme, and it is one of salvation. Redemption is never free, but no matter what you have done, it is obtainable if you make the right choices.
'Supremacy' conveys this theme through an interesting narrative device of doubling. In facing his assassin, Bourne is also facing himself -- the Urban character is Bourne's dark shadow, his doppelganger, the former cold-blooded killer Bourne no longer wants to be. I suppose you can figure out where Bourne ultimately ends up thematically by the end of this movie, but his journey getting there at least brings a humanity to all the espionage that gives 'The Bourne Supremacy' a resonance far greater than the majority of identi-kit Hollywood action thrillers.
However, I do have one complaint with 'Supremacy,' one that many other critics voiced at the time of the film's theatrical release -- that damn shaky camera. As director Paul Greengrass says on this disc's included supplements, he wanted to give the film a constant sense of motion, a feeling of impending danger and also reflect Bourne's conflicted state of mind. Fair enough. But after a while, I realized a good deal of the tension in the film's action scenes is simply because you're straining just to see what the heck is going on. At a couple of points, I even had to turn away from the screen for fear of falling into an epileptic seizure. Granted, all the shaky-cam plays a bit better on the smaller home screen, but it is still a shame Greengrass didn't just let the film's story speak for itself, because what is happening emotionally to Bourne is exciting enough. But whatever, I still loved 'The Bourne Supremacy,' nervous twitch or not.
Making its HD DVD debut, 'The Bourne Supremacy' looks very good in high-def. Of course, it goes without saying now that it surpasses the standard DVD release, but by how much?
The answer is, in most aspects, considerably. Granted, both the previous standard DVD release and this HD DVD edition appear to be minted from the same HD master (I noticed a couple of very minor instances of print speckles that appeared in exactly the same place on both transfers), but improved resolution and enhanced colors make HD the clear victor. Throughout, detail and sharpness are noticeably superior on the HD DVD, giving the film's exotic locales a very pleasing sense of depth. Colors are also a bit bolder, with richer greens and oranges. However, many passages of the film are intentionally subdued (especially the extended action sequence in Moscow and the chilly CIA scenes), yet still hues are overall more solid, clean and rich.
If I have any gripe about the picture quality of 'Bourne Supremacy' it is that the film's style is uneven, albeit intentionally so. The interior scenes at the CIA headquarters appear intentionally darkened, to the point where colors suffer from being artificially pumped up, which sometimes obscures detail (notice for example the actors' faces, whose skintones look "painted on" rather than natural). Conversely, the opening daylight exteriors in Bourne's tropical paradise have a very natural, bright, detailed appearance, so much so that I kinda wished the rest of the film looked likewise. But hey, it's all about style, so what do I know?
Finally, I have read some complaints in reviews of the standard DVD release of 'The Bourne Supremacy' that the transfer exhibits a grainy look. Personally, I didn't find it much of a problem at all -- it just looked like film should. And this HD DVD doesn't detract from or improve the situation, either. Comparing the HD DVD and standard DVD releases directly, the increased resolution of high-def does make film grain a bit more apparent, but at the same time, the image has more clarity and depth, so for me any instances of grain were far less distracting. I'd call it a wash.
'The Bourne Supremacy' packs a great soundtrack, too. Presented in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 (alas, no TrueHD option is provided) it sometimes noticeably bests the plain Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track included on the standard DVD release, so this is definitely one to crank up and enjoy.
As you'd expect, 'Supremacy's sound mix is very aggressive. It is very well designed, with discrete sounds positioned in all channels during the action scenes, and plenty of pans and whooshes. It is quite fun to listen to, and imaging is excellent across all channels. There were frequent moments where the movement of an effect from one channel to the other was near-transparent, and noticeably improved versus the Dolby track on the standard DVD.
Also improved on the HD DVD is dynamic range, with a bit more expansiveness to the high end and slightly stronger bass. I could feel deep vibrations a tad better, and overall the track sounded more forceful. Another added bonus is that the balance between spoken dialogue and the effects and music is generally excellent. Surprisingly for a movie that can get as loud as this one, dialogue was rarely obscured, and I didn't have to constantly adjust volume levels to compensate. How nice.
The original standard DVD release of 'The Bourne Supremacy' was one of those discs that appeared to have a ton of extra features, but when you really sat down to go through them, they were so brief that even if combined barely rate as a 30-minute featurette. Certainly, none of the material here is bad, but it seems like you are getting a bit more than you actually are if you just glance at the bullet points on the back of the box.
There were nine total featurettes included on the previous DVD, with all but one running less than five minutes. Each is again included here on this HD DVD, presented in 480i full screen video. "Matching Identities: Casting" gives a brief look at the the film's impressive ensemble, though I hoped for a bit more from Matt Damon on why he decided to return to the franchise for a second go-round. "Keeping it Real" tells us why director Paul Greengrass decided to make everyone sick with that shaky camera work. "Blowing Things Up" takes considerable pride in the film's avoidance of CGI effects in favor of the real thing. (Yeah!) "On the Move with Jason Bourne" is a breathless travelogue that tries to cram in the film's globetrotting locations in less than four minutes. "Bourne to Be Wild: Fight Training" gives us a quick overview of the film's middle-act shaky-cam masterpiece of fight choreography. "Crash Cam: Racing Through the Streets of Moscow" is another back-patter on how to mount a convincing car chase without CGI and blue screen. "The Go-Mobile Revs Up the Action" runs the longest of the featurettes and focuses specifically on a new camera technology that allowed the filmmakers to film the Moscow car chase so convincingly. "Anatomy of a Scene: The Explosive Bridge Chase Scene" actually has no explosions in it, unless you count Damon having the balls to actually jump off a bridge into a garbage truck. Finally, "Scoring with John Powell" gives us a few minutes on the creating of the film's score, which honestly I didn't find that memorable anyway.
Combined, the above really should have been a single featurette. All the clicking between short vignettes gets really annoying, and they are not arranged on the menu in any discernible order. That said, it's all pretty good for EPK material, and offers the occasional intriguing insight into the film's conception and production. Though again, it is far more impressive as a list of bullet points than a comprehensive viewing experience.
Next up are five deleted scenes that run ten minutes. Four are forgettable, but the last one is noteworthy, a meeting between the film's CIA team that pretty much explains the entire convoluted story of the movie. I guess it was removed because it may have spelled things out too much, but I think it really would have helped slow viewers like me, who have trouble keeping up with these intricate spy thriller plots.
Last but certainly not least, the most informative extra ported over from the standard DVD release is the screen-specific audio commentary by director Paul Greengrass. For having to fly solo, Greengrass does a fine job, and actually does not focus that much on production specifics. Rather, he delves into great detail on the development of the story, which is pretty much a complete departure from the Robert Ludlum novel aside from sharing its title. Greengrass does get into a few nitty-gritty production bits by the second half of the track, but it was typical "how to stage an action scene" stuff, so perhaps that is why I enjoyed the first half more. (Or maybe I was just getting bored with 'The Bourne Supremacy' in general by that point).
Once again, Universal has elected not to include any of the film's theatrical trailers or TV spots. Sigh.
I really enjoyed 'The Bourne Supremacy,' and felt it was a more exciting and engaging film than its predecessor. It also makes a very fine HD DVD just in terms of its picture and audio quality. But top that off with all of the extras from the standard DVD release and first-ever exclusive content on an HD DVD title, and you have a truly noteworthy disc. After weeks of good but unspectacular HD DVD releases (at least in terms of supplementary material), finally here is a disc that gives a hint of what a next-gen format is capable of. If this is a sign of things to come, I think HD DVD is finally on its way.