'Bourne'-again action leaves feeling behind

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WARNING: SPOILER ALERT! Do not read on if you prefer to see the movie without knowing one of the major plot turns.

The only time I'd seen the most-rented movie in America of 2003, the Matt Damon spy thriller "The Bourne Identity," was during its theatrical release in the summer of 2002. But before seeing the sequel, "The Bourne Supremacy" I studied up by watching the first one again at home.

After a second viewing, my admiration for the "The Bourne Identity" grew. Damon's Bourne is a bewitching brooder. Somehow, between searching for clues to his violent hit man past and keeping a step ahead of skilled government assassins, he had time to form a relationship with a girl named Marie (Franka Potente, "Run Lola, Run"), who is roped into the insanity of being on the run. The whole scenario was a bit unbelievable, but Damon and Potente managed to keep the film on solid emotional footing with the help of director Doug Liman. He managed to show a few choice, true moments of their peculiar courtship between exciting action scenes that never seemed contrived.

"Bourne Supremacy" is a different beast altogether.

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Bourne Supremacy **

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Matt Damon reprises his role as the memory-lapsed assassin in this paranoid thriller. Bourne doesn't live "off the grid" for long before his ex-CIA team and a hit man are on his trail. A sense of urgency helps smooth out the sequel's somewhat murky plot, while the climactic car chase on the streets of Moscow is unlikely to be topped this year.

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[SPOILER ALERT -- DO NOT READ ON IF YOU WISH TO EXPERIENCE THE MOVIE UNTAINTED!] They killed Marie. Almost right off the bat. Before the first reel was even over.

Now let me be clear. I am the first one to applaud a movie for surprising and challenging its audience. It was a bold move to do have her shot dead. And so unexpectedly, too. A nice, non-Hollywood death. It was quick, he tried to save her, couldn't, and that's it. How great would it have been for the remainder of the movie to just go off on some crazy tangent and keep the audience constantly guessing wrong?

Well, unfortunately, that's not what happened. Rather than have Bourne go into revenge mode, we are to believe that his recurring nightmares of a past hit job are his primary concern. Of course, he cared for Marie and is heartsick about her murder, but what he's really concerned with is some inward psychotherapy. How can he reconcile his own murdering past with his desire to "go straight", as it were? And not only does Bourne shrug off Marie's death, but also that of dozens of innocent people who are killed and/or maimed during several supremely destructive action scenes.

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From a franchise that proclaims to "keep it real," I can't buy it. What's more, I completely lost interest.

Which is too bad, because there is one pretty terrific action scene: a sure-to-be-legendary final car chase that doesn't dwell on big explosions, but prefers you keep in mind the insanity of what could possibly happen next.

However, during most of the action scenes, I struggled to follow exactly what was going on. Flashes of color and streaks of movement can make for a striking picture, but only if you can see what's taking place, not to mention if you care about who is in jeopardy.

And since Bourne (a man of little words anyway) had no one to confide in or talk to (a la Marie in the original), the only dialogue taking place is more government agent prattle between Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and thankless others. The subplot that's meant to keep us involved in those characters is obvious and not very interesting anyway.

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The strength of "The Bourne Identity" was that it allowed us to empathize with Jason and Marie. What would we do in the same crazy situations they were thrown into? Their time together was a string of extremely high-pressure situations, but there was tangible bond being formed. While Damon still brings a measure of likeability to the role, this movie's storyline makes for too big a hole to fill.

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