When Good Will Hunting was released in 1997, New Yorker critic Anthony Lane offered a withering assessment of Matt Damon's star quality, writing that he wouldn't pass as Cary Grant's bellboy, much less a leading man. Years later, Lane's quip seems right on the money, though not in the way he intended. Damon will never be mistaken for Cary Grant, but that's part of his greatness as an actor. In his signature roles (Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Bourne Identity), his desire to be something that he isn't is precisely what makes him special. Audiences respond to Damon because he's one of them—not some aloof and untouchable movie star, but a vulnerable, self-effacing guy striving to find his place in the world.
Stepping up the old-fashioned, no-frills efficiency of The Bourne Identity, the Robert Ludlum adaptation The Bourne Supremacy goes through its airport-thriller paces with dazzling kinetics and style. But it wouldn't be the same without Damon, the engine that drives it forward. Like the first entry, the sequel supports its Cold War cat-and-mouse games with a compelling quest for identity, as Damon's lingering amnesia leads him to discover new things about himself. The jet-setting action begins on a beachside bungalow in India, where Damon and his girlfriend Franka Potente are in seclusion, hoping his enemies—his nefarious CIA cohorts among them—don't find them. After a Russian oil tycoon sends an assassin to upend a CIA operation, killing two people in the process, Damon gets framed for the crime. So not only are the Russians looking to kill Damon and remove any trace of their involvement, but a team of CIA officials, led by Joan Allen and the wily Brian Cox, are also anxious to bring him down.
Like a lot of sequels, The Bourne Supremacy rehashes the same formula as the original, with Damon tracing his past along a trail of breadcrumbs, while dodging hired assassins through narrow city streets. But in this case, how matters more than what: Director Paul Greengrass, who made the startlingly immediate vérité drama Bloody Sunday, brings a physicality to the action sequences that would be unimaginable in today's computer-generated blockbusters. For one, Greengrass knows the difference between arbitrary, MTV-style editing and fast-cutting with a purpose. Jittery handheld cameras and whipcrack editing enhance the fights and car chases, but they've been choreographed so viewers always know where they are. It shouldn't be that much to ask, but the Bourne movies make the modest work of delivering the goods seem like a rare treat.