Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Yesterday's movie: The Bourne Ultimatum.
This is the third movie in what appears to be an ongoing series based on Robert Ludlum's amnesiac spy hero, Jason Bourne. The first was 2002's The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman, and was a cracking good story and movie, enough to launch a viable franchise. That story began with Bourne floating in the middle of the Mediterranean, fished out of the drink by a passing fishing boat with two bullets in his back and a severe case of amnesia. He is dropped off in some European town with a few Euros and the number of a Swiss bank account from a capsule mysteriously placed under the skin in his hip. The story takes off from there, a man with no memory but a vast and inexplicable set of survival skills following a few thin leads, trying to figure out who he is. He is surprised to find he can speak several languages, and has a bunch of programmed ass-kicking skills which jump to attention at appropriate moments kind of irrespective of his will and desire. It's a twist on the conventional spy thriller genre: rather than watching our spy crack some case to save the world á la James Bond, in this case his talents come into play almost unwittingly as he tries to figure out who he himself is.
The three movies have had a mostly contiguous storyline. The first one introduces us to The Man With No Memory, and involves his attempts to stay alive at the hands of people bent on killing him (his bosses at the CIA, as it turns out, who are unhappy at his inexplicable non-adherence to protocol). In the second one he begins to piece together his past, while the same evil people manage to kill his girlfriend while trying to get to him, and we watch him avenge her death--all while trying to learn the rest of who he is, of course. In this most recent installment he is largely back up to speed with his identity, and the movie follows his mission to track down the people responsible for his transformation into a killing machine--an identity and job he no longer wants anything to do with.
Like every spy story, this one has more holes than your grandpa's socks. He hasn't worked, that we can tell, in seven years. Yet he lives in grand places, has unlimited access to high tech weapons and gadgets, and he flies around the world at will. He can't remember anything about his person, yet he is up to speed on the entire vocabulary of CIA tricks, including, presumably, any they've managed to come up with in the last seven years.
While the first movie took this novel scenario and put together a reasonably believable story, this third movie relies for its tension almost entirely on Bourne being a bald nanosecond ahead of a veritable army of menacing bad guys coming for him at full tilt. For, like, 90 minutes straight. I mean, there are limits to how much of this a person can withstand and remain engaged, let alone enthusiastic. And almost in compensation for this adrenaline overload, it seems, Bourne's few interactions with Nicky Parsons (played in all three movies by Julia Stiles) seem almost comatose in their inactivity. I love Julia Stiles, and her intelligence-ops character in the past two movies seems wonderfully decisive and strong and put-together. But in this movie they put the barest hint of something interpersonal between her and Bourne, and then follow this scent exactly... not at all. I understand that an unemotional, taciturn nature is in keeping with Bourne's character; and I understand that Nicky works for the same agency and works closely with these brainwashed agents; but for BOTH of them to have nothing to say makes for some... very... dead... scenes. But at least you manage to catch your breath before your next wet-finger-in-the-light-socket episode. I criticized the last few Bond movies for getting too bogged down with romance--something I didn't think James Bond needed more than the merest dalliance with. But here I think Bourne needs something human to bounce off of, lest he come across as nothing but a bundle of deadly conditioned responses. Well, maybe they're just setting things up for later development.
This third movie, as well as the second one, was directed by Paul Greengrass. I'm frankly surprised that he was tapped again after his previous effort, since I don't think anyone believes his Bourne movie is the equal of Liman's (Liman executive produced both Greengrass's Bourne movies, so maybe Liman deserves more blame here than I'm allowing). One big criticism I ran into again and again with The Bourne Supremacy is the almost seasickness-inducing use of the handheld camera, evidently in an attempt to seem "gritty" and "TV news real". And clearly Mr. Greengrass is above reading the critics since, if anything, The Bourne Ultimatum relies on this fad even more than his last effort. This whole wiggly-cam business seems the silliest of TV reality show gimmickry, and it's surely one of the things that will cause these movies to seem laughably dated in a couple years. And it just strikes me as the kind of thing no good director would resort to: rather than choreograph and shoot and edit a complicated fight scene, let's just strap the camera to a jackhammer and put the resulting footage to a bar fight soundtrack. It 's disorienting and confusing--and not in a good way. One friend had to leave the theater about 1/3 of the way thru the movie as he was getting sick. I concede that the director is attempting to show Jason Bourne doing things that are pretty much impossible for a human being to do in reality. But I'm here to tell you that wiggly-cam-ming your way to Action Director Heaven seems really unlikely to this reviewer. My advice: go back to Liman's first Bourne movie, and see how you might accomplish the same thing better with editing and soundtrack. And nobody gets sick!
Matt Damon is perfectly cast as a 30-something everyman. He has a basic believability that plays well in these scenes, and he can do the kinds of physical things that the role requires.
The movie is left open-ended for further installments, though I understand that Damon has about had enough. I say, let him alone for a while and he'll come crawling back for the action movie paycheck.
And we'll all benefit.