"James who?" was the phrase on everyone's lips at the close of The Bourne Identity, 2002's sleeper hit adapted (loosely) from Robert Ludlum's novel. Directed by Doug Liman, it was, and still is, a taut, gritty affair, lent a soulful edge by the presence of Matt Damon in the title role of the amnesiac superspy, one which, unexpectedly, transformed him into an A List action hero. Stealing the limelight from under 007's nose (Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli were surely making notes for Casino Royale), this was arguably the first action flick of the new decade to take the genre in a new direction.
However, the sequel that followed in 2004, The Bourne Supremacy, was even better. Changing hands from Liman to Bloody Sunday's Paul Greengrass, the pacing was amped up, the mystery enhanced, the action made more intense through the claustrophobic shaky camerawork; what we received was an instant classic of action cinema, a white knuckle ride with a moving human core in the form of Damon's Bourne, a man compelled to live on the run for reasons he doesn't understand. Unbelievably, both Greengrass and Damon were able to up their game once more in The Bourne Ultimatum, which has justly been recognized as a masterpiece of action cinema in its own right.
Yet it was with Supremacy that the series arguably began to find its own voice and style, chief among who was composer John Powell. Alumnus of Hans Zimmer's Remote Control stable, Powell spent the early part of his career alternating double-acts with friend and fellow composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Chicken Run; Antz), and offering distinct, rhythmically charged efforts for lackluster films such as Paycheck. With Bourne however, and especially in Supremacy, Powell was to develop a new sound for the noughties action movie: a galvanizing blend of electronics, live and sampled percussion and a sizeable string orchestra, all of which zips around the screen as quickly as Damon's hero is able to scale a tall building.
It's a potent, exciting mix that continues to be imitated, as much a character in the films as Oliver Wood's cinematography or Dan Bradley's exceptional second unit work. What's remarkable is the thematic backbone Powell deploys: rather than clutter the score with relentless noisy motifs, he instead centres the score on Bourne's journey, from which the action arises. The hauntingly melancholy theme underscoring Bourne's crisis of identity opens the album in "Goa", where it's also put through its paces in a charged arrangement for tropical percussion and strings. The first piece of proper action music then follows in "The Drop" where Powell's signature staccato strings and drums build in intensity to a thunderous climax.
Key to Powell's ability as a dramatist is his careful mixing of the louder sections with the more poignant moments, here evidenced by "Funeral Pyre", as Bourne laments the loss of his girlfriend, Marie (Franke Potente) and the beautiful oboe-led central theme in "New Memories". Crucial also is the sound Powell has honed in the films, a contemporary mix of electronic beats and the orchestra in tracks like "Nach Deutschland" which bring the spy genre kicking and screaming into the modern age. Then there are the enormously exciting stand-alone action pieces "To the Roof" and "Berlin Foot Chase", bringing all the seemingly disparate elements together in a furiously intense, forward thrusting style.
The standout however is the sensational "Bim Bam Smash" accompanying the awesome climactic car chase through Moscow, and one of the most impressive pieces of cinematic action music to appear in the decade. Here, Powell pulls out all the stops in underscoring the desperate final showdown, with the first half given over to an electronic/orchestral combo before the full orchestra builds relentlessly in the second half to a heart stopping climax. It is here that Powell's action voice appears at its most original, undiluted and rhythmic. We are then allowed to catch our breath in the climactic "Atonement" as Bourne's theme gets a lovely reinstatement on mournful strings, ending the score on a thoughtful, mature note and setting us up for Ultimatum.
John Powell is one of the most exciting new composers around at the moment and efforts like The Bourne Supremacy are landmarks in his still youthful oeuvre. Very rarely can it be said that a composer defines a sound for a particular genre but Powell has done exactly that, doing just as much as Damon, Greengrass and Liman in updating and overturning tired clichés of the action movie in order to introduce them to a new audience. The soundtrack is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.