Bringing novelist Robert Ludlum's espionage thriller The Bourne Identity to the screen in 2002, director Doug Liman coaxed a surprisingly angst-ridden central performance from pretty boy Matt Damon as the eponymous amnesiac assassin on the trail of his own blood-splattered past. Despite the riskiness of such against-type casting (Damon's snub nose and perky grin hardly suggested a ruthless killer with a graveyard of forgotten corpses in his wake), Liman's thriller proved a healthy box-office draw.
Thus we now have The Bourne Supremacy, presumably kick-starting an ongoing "Bourne" franchise that will find our hero trotting the globe in a string of eye-catching spy-versus-spy-type escapades. Having already had his passport stamped in Paris, Zurich and Rome, Jason Bourne is propelled in this second instalment from the dusty streets of Goa to the darkened underpasses of Moscow via the imposing vistas of Berlin, in search of the sinister forces conspiring once again to reactivate his murderous services.
Starting as it means to continue, The Bourne Supremacy opens with a bravura car chase that puts pedal to metal amid a warren of perilously crowded streets, and closes with a chassis-mangling high-speed pursuit that had me wishing the cinema seats were fitted with safety belts. In between, there are a few lines of hard-boiled dialogue, a couple of nippy surveillance set-ups, lots of people talking tough on mobile phones and an occasional moment of contemplative respite. But for the most part, it's chasing, chasing, and yet more chasing: out of windows; up fire escapes; over rooftops; down subways; through crowded streets; on boats; and over and under bridges. Even more so than The Fugitive, The Bourne Supre-macy is a movie that exists almost entirely for the thrill of the chase, hitting the ground running and then proceeding in marathon style for the next two hours as Bourne plays scenic cat-and-mouse with his various nemeses.
In other hands, this may all have become terribly tedious. Yet the top-flight British director Paul Greengrass turns The Bourne Supremacy into a thoroughly gripping pulp thriller that efficiently pushes the audience through the action mangle. Having perfected his faux- documentary style in the acclaimed Bloody Sunday, Greengrass once again mixes shaky-cam dramatics with highly orchestrated pyrotechnics to create the illusion of real and present danger exploding at uncomfortably close quarters. The result is a palpable sense of reckless endangerment that keeps the audience perilously perched on the edge of their seats even as the plot descends into abject silliness.
Equally rewarding is Greengrass's unintrusive ability to get up close and personal with his performers, allowing Damon to act both tough and troubled, suggesting genuinely frazzled paranoia despite the elfin cut of his facial features. Even alongside the veteran heavyweight support of a stony-faced Joan Allen and a marvellously conniving Brian Cox, Damon manages to hold his own - a credit to both him and his director. Add to that an engaging feel for the world of post-cold-war espionage befitting the co-author of Spycatcher, and Greengrass emerges as an unlikely hero of modern secret-agent cinema. If I were in charge of the flagging Bond movie franchise, I'd despatch my evil henchman to enlist his super services forthwith. "Ah, Mr Greengrass. We have been expecting you . . ."
For those less enamoured of Hollywood fare (and I'm assuming that few NS readers will be wasting their time with the soiled litter of Catwoman), the much-vaunted new wave of South Korean cinema also breaks in Britain this week. In my last column, I mentioned A Tale of Two Sisters, Kim Ji-woon's beautifully constructed ghostly chiller, which marries post-Ringu visual scares with a complex narrative puzzle that is one part Sixth Sense to two parts Korean folklore. It's a splendidly haunting piece of work that places a cold hand on the back of the audience's necks and proceeds to strangle them softly. Be warned - you will need at least two viewings to appreciate fully (or understand) the icy spell of A Tale of Two Sisters.
Equally unnerving is Memories of Murder, a tragicomic serial-killer thriller that documents a blundering police force's inability to capture a murderer who seems incongruously motivated by sad songs and rainy days. Inspired by an infamous unsolved case that haunted Korea in the late 1980s, Bong Joon-ho's unsettling "anti-procedural" offers a strange mix of brute force and heartbreaking melancholia as the cops impotently rage with their feet and fists against an enigma that demands an altogether more cerebral solution. "I am enraged by the circumstances that allowed these women to be killed," says the director, positing a modern monster loose in an anachronistically rural idyll, evoking queasy horror, mirthless farce and beautiful sadness in roughly equal measures. Disorientating stuff indeed, and a world away from the predictable formulae of most mainstream western crime thrillers.