Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Bourne Ultimatium

Considering all my complaining about The A-Team and action films using shakey handheld cameras this week I thought I'd cap my thoughts on the subject off with a my review from a couple years ago of the film that does this style the best and indeed creates intimate and exciting action sequence using a handheld camera and lots of edits. The Bourne Ultimatum is an exercise in great post-modern filmmaking from a man who has burned his way into our collective conscious as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. It’s a film that means business and doesn’t screw around getting to it. With airtight economy, the plot doesn’t fool with anything it doesn’t need and instead concentrates with intense focus on every detail it has, creating suspense not through over-the-top action (although there is a lot of that), but procedure. There is not one wasted moment in this film. It is lean, mean and to the point; so intensely good in fact that it leaves no room to question its own absurd plot. Most importantly, it is not smug or sly, it doesn’t wink or waste space with nostalgia because its only point of reference is itself. To see the Bourne Ultimatum as the finale of an ongoing narrative is to understand what the previous films were holding back. As a masterpiece of sound and handheld cinematography, of lighting and editing, director Paul Greengrass has single-handedly reinvented the spy-thriller genre. This is one of the year’s best films. The amnesiac U.S. spy is back for his third outing in the Bourne Ultimatum. Once again Jason Bourne must outsmart CIA agents sent to eliminate him while on a personal quest to find his true identity once and for all. A plot description here would be futile. The plot is no more than a constant back and forth between CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) trying to track Bourne’s every move and Bourne always narrowly escaping. What is fascinating about the Bourne Ultimatum is how the character of Jason Bourne inhabits his own universe. Bourne, although able to accomplish amazing feats like backing a car off a roof or ramping a motorbike up the side of a wall, is not a showoff. Matt Damon has taken his fair share of critical flack these days, being accused of one-note performances. However it is testament to Damon’s talent that he is able to step outside of his boyish good looks in order to play inert, one-note characters. In the hands of a charmer, Jason Bourne would be a second rate James Bond with no memory. As played by Damon he is a cold, hard man who takes no pleasure in the acts of violence he must commit. A man of procedure and not action, Bourne gets the job done as efficiently as possible and moves on. And by presenting a man with no memory, the film inverts the typical action hero: Bourne has no back story, no long lost love, no tragic past and no alliance to anyone but himself, freeing the film of clutter to focus on the simplistic heart of the story: a government spy trying to find his true identity. The brilliance of the performance is that, even when Bourne is doing something fantastic, Damon’s acting is completely internal. If Bourne had more than one note, the film would be a mess. What then makes the Bourne Ultimatum a great thriller is the starling degree of intensity which Greengrass employs in overseeing that his film mimics the very best traits of its main character: lean, mean and without excess. The Bourne Ultimatum is all business. Much has been debated about Greengrass’ use of a handheld camera, which shakes uncontrollably during action sequences, losing the focus as many would argue. And although I have been against the use of the handheld camera in action films for some time now, Greengrass has found a way to integrate the unstable focus of the machine as an integral part of the filmic experience, making the connection between the audience and Bourne as intimate as ever. This makes for the film’s most important asset. If we have no way of empathizing with Bourne over his self obsessed quest for identity, the film at least goes to great lengths to place us so intimately within Bourne’s universe that empathy becomes superfluous. By appreciating the necessity of the handheld camera we can begin to see the precise architecture of the film’s action. Greengrass breaks down the ingrained perceptions of cinematic time and space. In delivering short, intense bursts of spastic motion from all angels, the so-called cinematic “fourth wall” becomes extinct, giving the camera a feeling of 360 degree peripheral vision and giving the audience the sensation of being vulnerable from all sides. In doing this, by keeping the action in the moment, by unchaining the camera from its role of passive observer and transforming it into an active participant in the cinematic experience, Greengrass has captured the visual essence of what it must feel like to be in Jason Bourne’s shoes: always on the run, always ready for action from all angels, and always buried under the pressure of needing to make convulsive decisions in split second moments of adrenaline fueled intensity. This is damn electrifying filmmaking. For all the naysayers, there is no better proof of the film’s brilliant mechanics than in the single most stunning image this or any other action film this year has seen. It is a sequence even more startling than the infamous crane chase in Casino Royale because of both its sheer audacity and intimacy. The sequence requires Jason Bourne to jump off of a roof and through the window of an adjacent building in order to extirpate an assassin who is chasing Nicky Parsons (Julie Stiles). In Greengrass and cinematographer Oliver Wood’s most daring display of keeping the audience as close to the action as possible, just as Bourne makes the jump, the camera jumps with him across the divide between buildings, shooting him from behind on a 45 degree angle looking down. Cut to the reaction shot as Bourne crashes through the window and proceeds to an intense fistfight, shot mostly in close-up, and featuring only diegetic sound. That’s what makes the Bourne Ultimatum so stimulating and to-the-point. It is a film composed with none of the panache and wit of its action counterparts, but rather only nature’s most bare necessities: cold hard sweat and blood.


  1. I'm a big fan of the film (and the trilogy), but my heart has always been with the second of the three, perhaps because it is - as you suggested reflecting it's protagonist - the leanest and most excess-less of the three from a plotting point of view.

  2. Love Ultimatum and in my opinion, the best Bourne movie of the trilogy. Even in a blockbuster action movie, Matt Damon shows some pretty solid acting abilities, adding some depth to his character who, really, should be a nearly uni-dimensional trained killer.

  3. Darren, the second was my least favourite but I think I need to rewatch it because I feel I was originally put off by Greengrass and his handheld camera as opposed to Doug Liman straight-up action movie style with the first one.

    Castor, I think Damon has now finally proved himself as a very versitile actor, but you are correct, there's no way these movies would have been as good without him.