Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you the perfect action movie. I do not mean to say it is the "best" action movie, but every aspect of its structure allows for the most kinetic action on the planet. What the hell is going in on the fistfights? Who knows, but I bet it hurts. Why do we care about Bourne's story now that we learned his real name? Because there are people in this world who still need a good punching. In this film series, Bourne's identity was just a MacGuffin anyway.
Even Bourne doesn’t seem to care about his past, at least beyond figuring out enough to know who he needs to punch next. Damon is a torrent of rage hidden behind an impassive veneer; we have seen him weather everything the CIA has thrown at him so far, but now he is simply ferocious. Greengrass' direction will always divide viewers, but I thought it worked in the last film and it's necessary here. Every shot, every line of dialogue, every chase, every punch will keep you on the edge of your seat. I don't count more than three relatively calm conversations, though I can't trust my senses after sitting through this barrage.
The conversations are the only weak parts of the movie, because it gives us a chance to breathe. The camera seems to be as riled up as we are, because it cannot stay still in these long conversations. When the dialogue is punchy, Greengrass can keep the shots relatively stable and keep editing before any shakiness becomes apparent. But these longform exchanges display all the weakness inherent in the shaky style. Thankfully, even these scenes don't provide us with more exposition than we need, and the sheer panic in the voices of the normally composed CIA heads Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) conveys what a fearsome, unstoppable force Bourne has become.
Allen continues to shine as the conflicted Landy. Her final scene in Supremacy actually occurs late in the timeline of this film, and that may seem grossly unnecessary but it's interesting to see what leads her to the decision to tell Bourne his name and to genuinely reach out to him (as opposed to all the traps attempting to lure him into an easy kill). Julia Stiles never stood out in the series even though she appears in all five films, but her work is a bit more substantive this time around. Like Landy, Nicky discovers that the real enemies are the CIA bosses and Bourne protects her when she divulges information about the upgraded Treadstone, Blackbriar.
Strathairn isn't as good a villain as the first two deputy directors, but anyone would look weak compared to Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. Actually, his acting isn't even the problem; he just has far less a personal stake in the action than Cooper and Cox's characters. Gilroy's scripts brings him into the story enough to make him interesting by the end, but the bad guy I found myself drawn to this time was the doctor who brainwashed and conditioned Bourne to prepare him for his missions. Albert Finney plays Dr. Hirsch as an indifferent, clinical physician who barely reacts when Bourne finds him because he's been expecting this day for years.
Of the three films, Ultimatum veers the closest to reflecting Bond (which by then had enjoyed a magnificent revival, mainly thanks to taking a page or two from this franchise) with its roaming tour through some of the world's most beautiful cities. The foot-chase through Tangier itself is an acknowledged lift from The Living Daylights. But the cast and crew didn't travel to Tangier, New York, Berlin, Madrid and London (some locations double as other cities like Moscow and Turin) to get paid to go on vacation. Take that Tangier scene: in The Living Daylights, Bond's run across the rooftops highlights the expansiveness of the scene. It wants you to know the trouble the producers went through to take you here. The Ultimatum version could have been anywhere. Bourne doesn't care where he is, and the action is visceral and personal. The only reason it's in Tangier is because it's more likely that he would be able to leap off roofs into apartments, run through them, jump through windows in adjacent complexes. Greengrass makes the action personal, which makes you a part of it even when its editing style bewilders.
Simply put, this is the best action film of the decade. It lacks the spectacle of the Pirates of the Caribbean, and it's certainly not as fun as the first film of that franchise. Yet it knows how to keep you hooked with a style that roots you to the back of your seat. The first film's plot informed the action, and the second worked vice-versa. Here, the two are one and the same. What I see in this trilogy now that I watch them back-to-back is the only trilogy I can think of that gets better with each installment. Star Wars slipped with Return of the Jedi, Army of Darkness, though still excellent, didn't match the quality of what came before. Even Lord of the Rings, the best narrative trilogy ever made (thematic trilogies such as Three Colors and Bergman's Faith trilogy are superior), stumbled with its rampant aside in the last act The Two Towers which added a brand new subplot that didn't work, not because it deviated from the source material but because it repeated themes established in the first film and ruined an interesting character (Faramir).
Bourne, however, is an action trilogy that delivers with all of its installments. Whatever major changes it may have made to the source material, the result is one of the most exciting franchises of all time. Its breakneck pacing and ability to make you care for this mysterious hero with only a scant moment of pause here and there gives it an edge no one else can touch. So please stop trying, Mr. Bond.