Tuesday, August 28, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Bourne Ultimatum"

"The Bourne Ultimatum"
Director: Paul Greengrass
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 76
In a Nutshell: When listing my favorite films of 2004, I ranked Paul Greengrass' "The Bourne Supremacy" as my 8th favorite movie of the year and it might have been higher. The film had a perfect nihilistic ending, with our hero walking off into the snowy streets of Moscow after *not* killing somebody. Then Greengrass and company had to go and mess with things, tacking on a sunny and relatively upbeat ending in New York City, wrapping up the story and opening things up for a sequel. FEH!

On his commentary track for "Supremacy," Greengrass admits that they had trouble coming up with the right conclusion and that what eventually made it on screen was the product of extensive group-think, sort of an uneasy consensus.

For my money, the most satisfying thing about Greengrass' "Bourne Ultimatum" is that it somehow manages to validate the last scene of the earlier movie. The bland coda to "Supremacy" and reshot and repurposed in the middle of "Ultimatum" and suddenly the scene has meaning and context, suddenly it's another mind-game in a franchise full of mind-games. If I believed for a second that anybody wrote the original scene intending to bring a new spin to the sequel, I'd be impressed. But I don't. And actually I'm even more amazing and pleased that in preproduction on "Ultimatum" somebody realized that they could salvage what went wrong on the earlier movie.

The rest of my musings will be after the bump.

Click through...

[While I may have already thrown out a few spoilers for "The Bourne Supremacy," I'm gonna go into "Bourne Ultimatum" spoilers from here, so be aware...]

If I prefer "Supremacy" and maybe even "Identity" slightly over "Ultimatum" it shouldn't take away from what has now become cinema's most consistent action franchise, a series so reliable that it disappoints me to hear talk of ending things at a trilogy. I understand that they're rolling the dice with any subsequent films, practically begging for a let-down, but so far the "Bourne" movies have been exemplary in terms of using the finest actors and craftsmen in the industry in the blockbuster field. When the summer of 2007 is weighed in the balance, most of the sequels well have to go in the "sucked" category, with "Harry Potter 5" and "Die Hard 4" going under "better than expected," but only "The Bourne Ultimatum" goes down as "darned good."

I guess I felt like the story of "Bourne Ultimatum" tied everything up too neatly. I preferred "Supremacy" with its "drop you in the action/leave you in the action" pseudo-arc. The friend I saw the movie with said he preferred that "Ultimatum" told a full story and that "Supremacy" had problems standing alone, but I liked the "Empire Strikes Back"-ness of the middle installment. The less I know about Jason Bourne, the better, it turns out. Damon's performances in these movies may play the same single, intense note, but to my mind that makes the character every bit as instantly recognizable and iconic as Eastwood's nameless Western heroes. We never wasted time in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" trying to figure out the backstory for Eastwood's character and I don't know that Bourne is more or less watchable knowing that he may or may not have had some sort of past with Julia Stiles' Nicky.

I'm pleased enough that the people from Bourne's past seem to repeat themselves and that he can't kill one without an identical shadowy government figure popping up. It took me a long time in "Ultimatum" to fully ascertain that brilliantly taciturn, Oscar nominated, John Sayles-trained character actor David Strathairn wasn't playing the exact same guy that brilliantly taciturn, Oscar nominated John Sayles-trained character actor Chris Cooper played in the first movie. And if Albert Finney and Brian Cox's characters weren't siblings, they were at least kissing cousins.

I also continue to love that the "Bourne" movies are a leftist inversion of Eastwood's Dirty Harry films. As many killers as Harry Callahan tracked down, the real villain was always the bureaucracy that kept making it harder for him to shoot first and ask questions later. Jason Bourne, though, is faced by a government cabal that, thanks to 9/11, can now operate without a shred of accountability. Bourne doesn't want anybody dead. He just wants a little government oversight, some checks and balances, a few Congressional hearings. He was trained to be a heartless killing machine, but Bourne is a Big Government softie.

Lost in Greengrass' gift with stomach-churning car chases and action sequences is the fact that he doesn't require millions in smashed automobiles and mangled stuntmen to create a tense action sequence. For me, the best scene in "Ultimatum" was Bourne attempting to navigate Paddy Considine's intrepid reporter through London's Waterloo Station and away from intrusive CIA agents, ubiquitous cameras and one nameless assassin. In addition to making me want to hop on the Tube to Waterloo Station and then head over to the National Theatre to see a show, the sequence worked entirely because of Christopher Rouse's editing, John Powell's score and Greengrass' unparalleled ability to create disorientation without ever sacrificing a sense of space and geography. Whether on a scale model of United 93 or on the streets of Tangier or Paris, Greengrass is happy to mess with the viewer's head, but he never loses a clear grasp on where the movie is taking place.

But for all of my admiration of Greengrass' work, I loved the stylistic transition for Doug Liman to Greengrass between the first and second films and I wish the franchise had gone to a different indie director for the third, just for fun. How about urging Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to get off his mopey, self-righteous high horse and make an international action movie? What about seeing if Gus Van Sant can take his experiences with Damon to the not-so-logical next level? What would Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck do with a paranoid studio feature?

Anyway, since I'm a month late to catching this movie, I assume that all of the observations I think are so clever have already been made. So I'm gonna stop here.


  1. The friend I saw the movie with said he preferred that "Ultimatum" told a full story and that "Ultimatum" had problems standing alone

    Huh? Wha?

    I don't know that Bourne is more or less watchable knowing that he may or may not have had some sort of past with Julia Stiles' Nicky.

    This, to me, was one of the few false notes of the movie. In her small amount of screen time in the first movie, Stiles never reacted to Bourne like he was anything but another Treadstone guy she had to keep track of, and all of a sudden there's some implied romance?

    And, like you, I really appreciated how they took the lame test audience ending and not only found a way to give it a new meaning, but held the damn thing back until the movie was two-thirds over.

  2. Drat. I knew I was gonna mix up "Supremacy" and "Identity" and "Ultimatum" at some point, so I put a bit of effort into keeping them straight. Now you expose how badly I failed. Nuts.

    [We're getting into big spoilers here if anybody wants to avoid 'em...]

    The idea of a Nicky-Jason past was almost the opposite of the repurposed ending from the second movie. I mean, there *are* two earlier movies and now people are going to go back to see if there are any earlier hints at romance and they won't see it just because nobody told Julia Stiles she needed to act it. Of course, if they *had* told her, she would have played it and it wouldn't have been a surprise. So who knows? We're left to wonder on the degree of that relationship, of course. Are we even supposed to assume that David Webb (old Jason) and Nicky broke up and that his depression led to the fatalism that caused him to turn in his dog tags and become an anonymous killing machine? Or was that action the action that broke them up in the first place? Or maybe she just worked with David early in his training and early in her training at the CIA and she was sad to see what the government had decided to do to her pet agent? It's all still pretty open...