Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Action Without Steroids

Reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly

by Scott Duhamel

Even the casual filmgoer knows the basic, tried-and-true elements of the cloak-and-dagger action film: A hip-scotch of international film settings, a few slow-boiling set pieces punctuated with snap, pop, and crackle bursts of up-close brutality, a plot determined by cat-and-mouse maneuvers, a hero-on-the-fly facing menace every which way but loose, and a huge cloud of paranoia and omnipotent Big Brotherness hovering over the proceedings. It’s cold war pulp, inflated hokum, and most contempo movies pump up and inflate the genre with high tech gimmickry, ‘yippie-kay-yay” dialogue, and a profusion of eye-catching detonations. The Bourne films, including the newest, The Bourne Ultimatum, are sprightly archetypes---agile, resourceful, well-made action films that pack a wallop without subtracting astuteness. As well evidenced by this third entry, the Bourne movies are acutely entertaining, action movies devoid of steroids.
Upon the release of The Bourne Identity in 2002, few expected much of a movie taken from the pages of Robert Ludlum’s potboilers with pasty-faced Matt Damon on board as the enigmatic spy-without-a-memory Jason Bourne. Brown grad and Swingers director Doug Liman’s attempt to make the genre film earthbound, utilizing Damon for his very ordinariness, and fitting the car chases and fight sequences into the context of a very recognizable and grim world, struck a chord with audiences seeking the thrills of action but not the cartoonishness. The follow-up, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, was taken over by Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday), who further filed the excess of genre away, shooting in a quasi-documentary style pumped up with skillfully rabid editing and jumpy hand-held camera stylings. It was smart and scorching, a strange combo of Hitchcock, 70’s paranoid cinema (The Parallax View, The Conversation) and a James Bond film that the late Michelangelo Antonioni might have made.
After making the harrowing but accomplished United 93, Greengrass is back behind the lens for Ultimatum, as is a Damon who seems more physically right for this role than ever. He’s aged nicely, filling out and losing much of his boyish air, and the undercurrent of inner anguish the role requires comes to the forefront. The character is all thought and action-he’s gotta be one of the smartest indestructible guys on the planet—yet Damon saves him from becoming pure cipher or cartoon figure, and he does it without much verbalizing. (Bourne talks so little that you better go see another Damon movie if ya wanna catch a glimpse of his pearly whites.)
As in the other films, Ultimatum, comes equipped with a full roster of strong supporting types (David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, Paddy Considine) and Julia Stiles reprises her role as a conflicted operative. The acting, like the movies, is lean and unadulterated, mere background to a film that is more concerned with dimensions and spatial relationships. Greengrass shoots his action, from confined apartments to conjoined rooftops to crowded subway stations, with one foot in reality and the other in cinematic technique, presenting the chaos of violence as a way station between stillness and thought. Greengrass’ direction attaches a solid air of plausibility to the mechanics of espionage, and Damon’s forlorn (but well-armed) seeker of truth and self-justice brings extra layers to the usual running, leaping, martial-arts wielding, and speed-racing lone avenger that takes center stage in this genre, and their collaboration produces some exquisite results. The Bourne Ultimatum is a movie buff’s wet dream---clever and subtle yet frenetic and visceral, filled to the brim with a cinematic bravura that seems earned and unalloyed.


mdoggie said...

... Greengrass shoots his action, from confined apartments to conjoined rooftops to crowded subway stations, with one foot in reality and the other in cinematic technique, presenting the chaos of violence as a way station between stillness and thought...

I nominate you for "Best Film Writing" from home category. ...the chaos of violence as a way station between stillness and thought...

I too have enjoyed all of these films. I even forgave the lapses in plot-logic, willingly suspending my disbelief to go along for the adrenalinized ride.

mdoggie said...

So, here are my nitpicking, whiney little plot-point pebbles in my oyster....

1. Bourne's unfettered access to presumably highly secure buildings.

2. Apparently ordinary, able to be crashed through glass in the window of a secret secret training facility. That glass should have been replaced after the CIA's LSD experiments caused an agent to leap out a window to his death way back in the '60s.

3. The idea that someone in a high rise across the street from the Deputy Director of Operations for the CIA could see into his office and read top-secret documents over his shoulder with a cereal-box spy-scope.

I only pick on these because of the high quality of everything else, particularly the fight sequences which are realistic in their brutality and viciousness.

Totally unrelated but not, have you ever heard of a 1979 unreleased, tongue in cheek international intrigue meets JFK assassination pot-boiler called "Winter Kills"? Starring, Jeff Bridges and John Huston and with: Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Anthony Perkins, Ralph Meeker, and Toshiro Mifune. Ask me more, I recently acquired the deluxe DVD for $3.18 plus shipping in the original shrink wrap.

Scotty D said...

Strange guy named William Richert was responsible for writing and direcing the little known but well regarded Winter Kills,which he followed up (writing and directing) with the fairly intriguing Amercican Success Story, also starring Jeff Bridges,also a total box office failure, then didn't make a movie for a long time until A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, a little seen teen-on-the-loose tale featuring River Phoenix. Next time I hrad of him, he played the fat Shakespeare spouting guy in My Own private Idaho. Don't know much more, but figure the guy to be one way out dude. Winter Kills was adapted from a Richard Condon book, and our resident JFK expert, Charlie D, ( I'm also purty sure that Mikey T has seen it) may have much more to say about the movie itself, which I once saw at a college screening, and then again as a rental VHS.