Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Run, Jason, Run

Saw the Bourne Ultimatum last night and have some thoughts about the movie and the series in general, but first a couple of observations about pre-movie trailers:

The Kingdom looks really, really promising. And I know it's Peter Berg directing, and Michael Mann is only producing, but from the footage they show it looks like DP Maruo Fiore is doing a heck of an impersonation of Dion Beebe.

And then there was the teaser for the NBC show Bionic Woman. (You can see it here.) I haven't been this excited about a new TV series in a long time. Not only is BSG demi-god David Eick running it, and its got Katee Sackhoff, but it's also got Miguel Ferrer, too. Ferrer is a real talent, one of those actors, like Scott Glenn, Peter Coyote, and even the '90s Fred Thompson, who adds value to every project, no matter how small their role. With Ferrer, it's because of that voice and his quiet, kind of dangerous intensity.

David Strathairn is one of those guys, too. I've loved him since Return of the Secaucus Seven and I can't think of a performance that I don't like ("Now, I sense you're on your best behavior, but that's all I'll give you.").

All of that said, he's miscast as Noah Vosen in Ultimatum. The role of CIA heavy played previously by Chris Cooper and Brian Cox, doesn't fit him because he's not heavy. A snake, maybe, but not heavy. Which is what this role needs to be in order to have a worthy adversary for Bourne.

As for the rest of the movie, it's okay, but I can't understand the critical raves, which have been nearly unanimous. (David Denby actually sounded like he was day-dreaming about Matt Damon. Can't blame him, I suppose.) Maybe critics were trying to make up for missing out initially on how very, very good the first two entries in the series were.

I like those first two, Identity and Supremacy a whole lot and as a pair of action movies will put them up against any other pair you want to name from the last 20 years. Ultimatum, however, left me a little cold.

For me, the movie had two problems, one structural, one technical. The structural problem was the rampant anti-Americanism. I hate being predictable, but here goes: I get that the Bourne movies are anti-imperial; I get that the U.S. government is doing shady stuff at Langley and that Treadstone is a scary program; but the first two movie handled these worldviews with some real artfulness. Ultimatum has none of that. We've got Noah Vosen running around New York shouting for assets and agents--even analysts--to kill, kill, kill--Bourne, journalists, other CIA officers, whoever. He does all of this with the goal not of protecting national security or even his bureaucratic turf, but simply, as he puts it, "to win." Win what? Oh, I get it, that's the point. What a silly imperialist I am.

In the course of trying to win for no reason, the CIA executes innocent people with black bags over their heads and uses bombs to blow up cars in the street. Any of this sound familiar? At all? Like from the recent past? There's something peculiar about a culture which, faced with a terrible enemy, makes movies depicting the enemy's wretched crimes, but ascribing that behavior instead to their native land.

Everything about Ultimatum screams conscientious objector--right down to the end where the totally neutered Pam Landy character whimpers about how this wasn't the CIA she signed up for and Bourne shows another asset just how fracked up all this nonsense really is. Again, it's not the premise that bothers me, I think, it's how ham-handedly it's realized. The Pam Landy character was fantastic in Supremacy--a super-tough, crafty infighter who obviously knows how to throw down and is comfortable trading punches with the big boys. Here she's reduced to moping around and playing peacemaker in the service of the film's broader message. When your agenda starts wrecking you characters, there's something wrong. And Ultimatum's message, screamed from every stedicam, is, "The America I love would close down Guantanamo Bay!"

And then there are the technical problems. Part of the power of the first two movies was the novelty of Bourne's physical presence. Watch him working his way through the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland in Identity, for instance: He's deliberate and decisive to the extreme. That's what makes him so interesting. In action scenes, he actually looks like he's moving slightly slower than the people around him. His physical edge comes from his ability to move deliberately and with no wasted motion. In Ultimatum that economy of force is gone. He runs here, he runs there, he looks like any other action hero. After he leaves London, he becomes such a generic action movie trope that he might as well be in The Last Boyscout.

(Also, and maybe I'm showing my age, I had trouble at times keeping the logistics of the action straight--who's punching what, which car is going where, etc. The other two movies are so spare and are cut so cleanly that that's never an issue.)

This all sounds more unhappy than it's meant to--again, I liked Ultimatum alright, although I probably won't need to buy the glorious HD DVD. (Identity and Supremacy were the first two discs I bought for the new player.) And I want to make sure to give Greengrass (and whichever screenwriter(s) and Julia Stiles) this credit: The scenes between Bourne and Nicki are handled so artfully and beautifully that you can barely believe you're in the middle of a summer action franchise. With this material, they understand that not all questions need answers and not all motivation needs to be explained with words. That's great stuff.


Christopher said...

You should write more movie reviews.

Jeff Westcott said...

Having seen the Bionic Woman pilot (if you look around the internet you can definitely find it) I have to say that it was disappointing. The acting was excellent, but the show was kinda boring. Another problem was they introduced a whole bunch of plot threads (presumably top be paid off in the next episode), but gave us too little information to even understand how they related to the A-Story let alone develop some grandiose theory about where the show is headed the way Lost, Heroes, Gallactica, etc. practically beg the viewer to do. To my mind that's at least half the fun.

Reel Fanatic said...

Having just seen recently seen the last Bourne (well, let's face it, probably not last) flick, I have to say I agree with all of your concerns ... Strathairn was just woefully miscast, and though Greengrass is clearly a very talented filmmaker, his inability to hold the camera still for even a nanosecond in the set pieces just gave me a big headache

Anonymous said...

Why is Greenglass "talented" if he can't tell a basic action story?

Evidence would suggest he lacks talent, and only has "hip, edgy, and cool." I.E. an ability to schmooze.

Shaky-cam sucks, it disguises that inability to construct an action sequence that is both exciting and character-driven as in the first movie with Doug Liman's Mini-chase sequence through Paris.

Spot on with the problem with Bourne Supremacy. It's Hollywood elite narcissism at it's worst. And bad in a creative sense as it recycles the plots of the earlier movies.

The problem with action movies now, and Sci-Fi subsets (Bionic Woman, Galactica, Heroes) is that it can't be true to the roots (and the true audience) which is largely middle-class to working-class men.

Jason Bourne, Jamie Summers, hell Buffy Summers, the characters on Galactica, and say, John McClain from Die Hard. Which one of these things does not belong with the others?

Bingo! McClain works because he's a blue collar guy trying to survive and beat the elitist bad guys who epitomize smoothness and social power. The others epitomize Hollywood elites who feel guilty about power/status while at the same time reveling in their ability to lord it over ordinary people. That experience is widespread in Hollywood but alien to almost everyone else.

It's the real reason why Bourne Ultimatum sucks so much (though Greenglass's cheating shakicam to disguise the inability to construct one decent action shot doesn't help). The script plays to elitist concerns instead of blue collar ones.

And last time I checked America had more plumbers than Malibu producers.

Jeff Westcott -- good points on those grand philosophizing points on Heroes, Lost, etc. That's another bad point in their design. Appealing to Kaballah-crazed elitists, instead of meat-potatoes type ordinary folk who want to be entertained not moralized/theorized at.

The Mechanical Eye said...

Appealing to Kaballah-crazed elitists, instead of meat-potatoes type ordinary folk who want to be entertained not moralized/theorized at.

I'm glad someone is standing up to tofu eaters!

Okay. I'm no Kaballah-crazed elitist, but I like Ultimatum just fine for its quick pace and very critical, jaundiced look at the CIA, and I doubt most of the blue-collar working class heroes you self-consciously defend like the CIA any more than your Malibu-film-producer strawman.

Maybe -- just maybe! -- American foreign policy isn't very popular anymore, and its turning up in big budget movies.

Also, I don't mind a movie that gets the brain pumping, myself -- a movie can in fact entertain as well as have an arty feel to it.

Not everything entertaining has to be a sloppy, wet kiss to the Michael Medveds and John Podhoretzes of the world -- where everything has to be a comfortable celebration of beliefs you already hold.


Jeff Peterson said...

While the political agenda was certainly evident, I found it transcended by the revelation that David Webb was responsible for the creation of Jason Bourne. Conservatives should be able to follow C. S. Lewis in recognizing that any evil carried out by the US government in defending against enemies foreign and domestic depends on the consent of the American citizens tasked with defense. Grant Greengrass his political statement (which I assumed was his attempt to get himself back in his peers' good graces after the perceived jingoism of "United 93"), and the story becomes a parable of personal responsibility offering a dramatically satisfying answer to the question of Bourne's identity with which the trilogy opened. (And FWIW I found the shakycam less annoying and the action easier to follow than in "Supremacy.")

Jonathan V. Last said...

On the question of the shakicam, I wonder if a movie shot and cut like Ultimatum doesn't actually make for better viewing on the small screen?

For my eyes, there is a discrete list of movies which I found nearly unwatchable in the theater because of the rapid cutting and giant screen (Any Given Sunday being Exhibit A), but which look really wonderful when reduced to TV letter-box size.

I wonder if anyone else feels this way.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments. I felt the same way when I walked out of the movie.

Anonymous said...

I also agree that there is an abvious anti-American message in the movie. The first two movies were good movies and the third is pure lefty shrill.