In conjunction with our chums at EA – and to mark the impending release of Need For Speed Rivals – we’re continuing our look at crossing the line movie car chases, with Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy. Remember – we want you to vote for your favourite, and we’re going to put on a big screen showing of the winner on November 21st.
Injecting a much needed shot of adrenaline into the spy thriller genre, 2002’s The Bourne Identity was tense and tautly-directed, and despite its somewhat fraught production, gave Universal Pictures a major hit. With Matt Damon in the lead as amnesiac ex-agent Jason Bourne, the film had some great action sequences, not least a show-stopping car chase through Paris, with the hero making his escape from the police in a Mini Cooper.
When director Paul Greengrass clambered aboard for the 2004 sequel, replacing the outgoing Doug Liman, the intensity of the automotive action was pushed further. With a background in journalism and documentary-making before he became a film director, Greengrass brought a real sense of immediacy to his action sequences, lending The Bourne Supremacy a verite style which spread to a legion other movies in the years after.
Arguably the most thrilling segment of the film, The Bourne Supremacy’s Moscow car chase is a perfectly-paced exercise in stunts, editing and choreography. Rightly winning industry awards for the quality of its execution, it’s one of the most nail-biting chases of the past decade.
From the beginning, Russian agent Kirill (Karl Urban) has been established as Bourne’s nemesis. Having already attempted to kill our hero once – and leaving his girlfriend Marie dead in the process – Kirill remains a constant threat, and as the film’s events play out, we’re waiting for the pair to meet again.
That meeting finally occurs in Moscow, where Bourne, having been shot in the shoulder by Kirill, makes his escape in a stolen yellow taxi. Kirill, in a Mercedes G-Class SUV, is in hot pursuit, and a cat-and-mouse chase ensues through the congested, chilly streets of Moscow.
From the off, poor old Bourne is established as the David to Kirill’s Goliath. Already at a disadvantage from the bullet in his shoulder, Bourne’s hampered further by the fragile-looking taxi he’s been lumbered with (a Volga 3310, fact fans). Kirill’s Merc is a veritable tank by comparison, and capable of taking repeated collisions while bits of Bourne’s taxi are flying off all over the place.
What makes this scene so exciting is that, unlike so many other movie car chases, where the drivers often make perfectly-judged decisions with split-second timing, both Bourne and Kirill repeatedly clip (or even smash into) other cars on the road. Sure, they’re both highly-trained and skilled drivers, but like any human being in a situation like this, they can’t possibly account for every eventuality.
Bourne’s constant scrapes and collisions with other vehicles not only adds to the scene’s realism, but also gives it an almost gladiatorial edge; this isn’t so much a chase as a fight sequence that happens to include cars. What’s more, having Bourne drive such a flimsy, un-macho car as the yellow taxi is a storytelling masterstroke; as with the little red mini in The Bourne Identity, it’s hard not to wince after each panel-wrecking collision.
Crossing the line
Somehow, Bourne’s plucky little taxi keeps ploughing on through the Moscow traffic, with our hero’s skills helping him to stay one step ahead of Kirill – witness, for example, the way he uses the protection of a big green articulated bus to provide himself with a few seconds’ head start. But from the very beginning, it’s obvious that Kirill’s Merc is the faster and more solid of the two vehicles, and it’s in the gloom of a three-lane tunnel that the pursuit takes on an even more deadly edge.
In his desperation to stay ahead of Kirill, Bourne swings his taxi into the middle lane, clipping the front of an innocent civilian’s car and sending it crashing into the tunnel wall. Swerving over to the left hand lane, he skims the rear of another car, leaving it spinning in his wake.
We can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for these random drivers, who were probably just heading home after a long day at work. But at the same time, it’s just another example of Bourne making last-second judgements and not quite getting the timing right – again, giving the whole scene a sense of edge-of-the-seat realism.
Besides, it’s Kirill who establishes himself as the villain here. Bourne may be raising the insurance premiums left right and centre, but at least he’s not deliberately trying to hurt anyone. Kirill, on the other hand, starts letting off shots from his pistol with abandon, even when there’s a civilian vehicle between his Merc and Bourne’s taxi.
Fortunately, Bourne’s cunning and superior driving ability prevails against the superior acceleration and build quality of Kirill’s Merc. As an exchange of fire gives way to some brutal side swiping, the two vehicles spin around, with the taxi eventually ploughing along with the Merc sliding in front of it at 90 degrees.
Kirill, having watched far too many Terminator movies, is so fixed on trying to shoot Bourne between the eyes that he doesn’t realise that he’s about to be shoved directly into a concrete divider – that is, until it’s far too late.
As the Merc smashes into the divider with a steel-rending crunch, effectively becoming a buffer for Bourne’s frail little taxi, the chase reaches its abrupt climax; Mercedes may build their cars to last, but not to survive a high-speed crash into a concrete pillar. Bourne emerges victorious, while Kirill sits in the shattered remains of his SUV, still alive but with his racing career very much over.
Greengrass’ direction is top-notch throughout The Bourne Supremacy, but nowhere is his skill more evident than here. As with any chase scene, it’s so effective because the dramatic stakes have already been established – we know Kirill’s a deadly menace, and we know that Bourne has a score to settle with the man who murdered his other half.
The chase’s technical execution is brilliant, too. The use of documentary-style shaking cameras may have been copied endlessly in other action movies, but it’s worth noting that, despite the visual chaos, we can always follow the thread of the action. Where other, lesser directors allow their action scenes to descend into so much shaky-cam mush – perhaps even using the technique to cover up flaws in the scene’s execution – we always know where the cars are in relation to each other. The documentary style adds impact rather than diminishes it; we feel every jarring impact.
Greengrass strips the typical Hollywood car chase of its usual glamour. The LA blue skies are replaced by an autumnal Moscow grey. Exotic sports cars are replaced by stock off-road vehicles and brittle Soviet taxicabs. By doing so, Greengrass, and his team of filmmakers and stunt drivers, gave a renewed sense of energy to a standard thriller staple.
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