Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Action Without Steroids
Reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly
EYES WIDE OPEN
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.