The Reeler


August 2, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Bourne again, with the same terse explosions and stand-out chases that hit the spot

The Bourne Ultimatum is the latest film by Paul Greengrass, whose previous two credits are United 93 and The Bourne Supremacy. Strangely, Greengrass didn't seem to see the difference in seriousness between a docudrama that essentially peels off a fresh scab and Matt Damon running and jumping through expensive explosions. The Greengrass treatment is the same in both instances: endless shaky-cam, no jokes. And while this might be appropriate for the expert dramatizations of United 93, there's something vaguely unnerving about a big-budget franchise movie that's equally but inexplicably self-serious.

The Bourne Supremacy was a passable time-waster, but three years later I can't remember anything about it, aside from wondering why the world's dullest spy was getting his own franchise. Part of the problem was probably buying the rights to a famous franchise only to discard pretty much everything but the premise: check out the Wikipedia page for Jason Bourne for more on the character’s originally conceived, Vietnam-era background. Universal bought a name, hollowed out the character, and forgot to fill it back up with something. Bourne is a disaster of a protagonist, as indestructible as the Terminator and every bit as humorless.

Fortunately, The Bourne Ultimatum is an improvement on its predecessor -- more concerned with the soothing sounds of screeching metal than the irritating chirping of one vacant character to another. Which isn't to say that when people start talking they aren't groan-inducing, they just don’t talk as much. In place of all that chatter, in fact, is the pointed critique of the Bush administration some partisans were hoping for in United 93. Be careful what you wish for: One of the film’s two main villains, CIA black-ops boss Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) announces it's not his fault a mission failed because there was so little time to prepare (failure to react in a timely fashion to news of plane crashes, check), proceeds to initiate situations in which innocent civilians are picked off while the real target stays safe and eventually snaps that he's going to keep fighting "until we win." Mission so totally not accomplished.

Like the low-fi, paranoiac post-Nixon '70s thrillers it resembles (any CGI here is practically invisible), The Bourne Ultimatum taps into fresh administration disillusionment for its portrait of a rogue government full of internal factions, overzealous creeps who monitor everything, and shadowy experimental torture divisions. Vosen duels with returning CIA good girl Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), attempting to kill off Bourne while she attempts to dig to the bottom of the conspiracy. As Bourne, Damon once again is laconic enough to make Clint Eastwood seem like Robin Williams. Ostensibly, he’s still seeking his true identity, but it’s hard to tell when the plot mimics that of the last two films -- Bourne visits a new country and kicks some fresh ass every 15 minutes, inexplicably stumbling upon clues to his past in the process. It's spy-movie piffle, same as it ever was, though slightly more credible for a more skeptical age: there is no amazing satellite technology to allow for overhead views from anywhere, but it almost makes sense that the government would track people's progress along Google Maps. (Like they could do better.)

Most of the dialogue in the CIA sections is merely serviceable, alternating between techno-gabble about pulling up coordinates and phone lines and Strathairn’s heavy-handed speeches. The action sequences, on the other hand, are first rate. Greengrass' taste for over-emphatic shaky-cam -- it goes beyond documentary mock-verisimilitude into the oddly abstract -- is way beyond self-parody at this point, but the fact that it jumbles spatial relations between characters into an incomprehensible mess turns out to not be much of a problem. In the many, suspenseful chases, Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse make up for this chronic discombobulation with expert timing: you almost always grasp near-intuitively how long it takes to get from one place to another and how far apart people are. There are at least two stand-out sequences -- Bourne vs. Waterloo Station, Bourne vs. Tangiers -- almost as exhilarating as the dual-time car chase in Deja Vu (a k a the best action sequence in recent memory).

There's also a healthy sense of the absurd in the many, many wall-to-wall chases that gratifyingly make up the majority of the brisk, under-two-hours running time. When Damon unleashes his inner Steve McQueen to ride a motorcycle up and down outdoor stairs in Tangiers -- approximately the 17,000th location, the globe-trotting being another pleasing aspect of Ultimatum’s retro feel -- I realized I was having a fine old time. The flashbacks to Bourne’s unsurprising past are tedious and the hero still bland, but in an era of overwhelmingly self-important blockbusters, where every stunted superhero and would-be Tolkien epic seems to be suffering from clinical depression, The Bourne Ultimatum’s terse series of explosions and chases just about hits the spot. Characters are overrated.

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Comments (3)

Nice review.

What's striking to me about the Bourne series is that its completely bereft of context as you mentioned not just politically but narratively.

Bourne was created as a myth to lure out an assassin that was just as good as Bourne was supposed to be. Bourne was a story they created and spread around to lure him out. David Webb, the man who became Bourne, trained to play the part to the best of his abilities and is as good at what he does for it but he was never quite as good as the baddy he was created to destroy.

The films completely sidestep this. There is no reason for Bourne to exist other than to do the CIA's tough jobs. It's a little too easy in my opinion, especially as it sucks out the fun of a cat-and-mouse chase when one is clearly stronger than the other. Supremacy was the best of the books as it had a lot of diverting political ramblings and suspense thrown in and Ultimatum was the worst book as it loses momentum halfway through and just crawls along limpingly afterward waiting for the final showdown between Bourne and his nemesis. Its partly why the two books that followed Ludlum's death about Bourne just seem unnecessary.

Greengrass' take on the character kinda threw me off in Supremacy though because again, as you said, I don't remember very much except a lot of serious talk and a shaky-cam fight in the kitchen involving handcuffs, an alarm and a knife. And no amount of proper framing could save the tension. I remember that, too. I am excited to see this one though as the praise has been tremendous.

As a fan of the series, let me point out the original, as another reviewer said, functioned as "Before Sunrise" for the adolescent boy aesthetic; and the adolescent boy aesthetic is AKA as "70% the public's aesthetic," which means people, myself included, actually took the characters a little seriously, despite the essential preposterousness.

Even having no dialogue, engagement with and sympathy for this hero is likely complex amongst different viewers, despite the blankness of Bourne's facade. He may look like the Terminator to someone disposed to dislike the film, but what do you prefer, "John Mcclane has troubles with wife, he is a working man"; "Mel Gibson's wife died in a car accident"; or an archetype-based mythological figure? That's what the best of these action films function as: myths. In this context, amnesiac, quasi-existentialist killer Bourne is much more interesting. I generally don't want to meet people when I go to the movies; character affect is a tool to employ judiciously, and most of the time it's a waste of time if that's all the film is doing, and manifestly inferior to speaking with one's friends. It is why the culture codes "art" films as "feminine"; watching quotidian social events occur is something only females especially enjoy. Nobody complains the "silent samurai" (a mythological figure I just invented) isn't "interesting", but the way people identify with him is interesting. Welcome to narrative.

Additionally, Bourne is battling a fictionalized embodiment of all the morally ambiguous bits of U.S. policy domestic and international, post WW2/post 9/11. This is about as serious a reflection on foreign policy as most viewers ever have; I'm not sure why it should be treated like a joke, or if any myth dealing with these topics should be playful.

I kind of hate archetype-based figures; Joseph Campbell made being unimaginative cool, though it's not his fault. Additionally, I'm not sure why you think art films are coded "feminine," unless I'm testosterone deprived. I certainly dig 'em. And if the Bourne films are "as serious a reflection on foreign policy as most viewers ever have," we're all doomed.

My real issue with Bourne isn't that he's silent or undersketched; old-school male bad-asses like Charles Bronson still had a sense of humor and judicious timing of their one-liners. Matt Damon is a fine comic actor, and the fact that he's basically been asked to grunt and run is kind of a travesty.

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