Monday, August 20, 2007

New Film: The Bourne Ultimatum

Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum, the third installment of the Matt Damon-fronted action franchise adapted from the novels of the late Robert Ludlum, has recently generated a small, internet-driven backlash centering on the director's shaky, hand-held camerawork - or as one of Roger Ebert's readers has dubbed it, "Queasicam" - even as the 'Bourne' films look to be among Hollywood's healthiest tent pole franchises. The always estimable David Bordwell has even chimed in, providing historical context for Greengrass's "Unsteadicam" look, correctly highlighting the parallels between Greeengrass's and Tony Scott's styles. While my own aesthetic preferences commonly tend toward the contemplative (toward longer takes that allow the spectator to select the image's focus) Greengrass's latest derives from the imperatives of the series' eponymous hero, and as such highlights the same integral relationship between form and content that elevated the director's exceptional previous feature, 2006's United 93.

As with United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum's narrative characteristically progresses on a real-time basis (a fact that is repeated in the film's dialogue). This fact, coupled with the frenetic pacing of the action that develops, produces a visual field that is often glimpsed only passingly at best, in occasional, infinitesimally-short fragments. However, it is a space that the film's hero Jason Bourne (Damon) remains capable of reading and processing with extraordinary speed and unfailing accuracy. That he can navigate the space at such velocities - in fact, as my viewing companion Lisa K. Broad points out, he often serves as a directorial agent within the film narrative telling his supporting players and therefore the camera where each should be at any given moment - highlights his superhuman perception. We experience the action, without always seeing what is going on around us; in The Bourne Ultimatum, space is made subservient to time.

Bourne also possesses an unequalled acumen for hand-to-hand combat, with the film's rapid cutting and nervous framing allowing the filmmakers to mask Damon's real-life aptitude for such activities. Greengrass has found a form to simulate without exactly showing. When the narrative does take a break from its virtually non-stop action, providing us with uncharacteristic moments of dead time, The Bourne Ultimatum suffers from the unclear motivations of its villains, to say nothing of Bourne's absence of any private life. Not that either is essential to The Bourne Ultimatum, which is thoughtless action in the very best sense.

Nor is this to say that Greengrass's picture is lacking a discernible ideology. Following the commemorative nature of United 93 - a film that made many a left-of-center commentator unease for its political implications - Greengrass seems to be righting this earlier non-politically correct wrong: for instance, The Bourne Ultimatum figures a Muslim bomber who is in the employ of the United States government (creating a de facto cultural relativism), while the film's most sympathetic ciphers are both female - in comparison to the picture's white, male CIA antagonists. In other words, Greengrass has made a film very much of our time to pair with his film of that earlier, less equivocal moment. Then again, as my viewing companion likewise noted, Greengrass does reveal that Jason chose his path of his own accord, thereby saving us from V for Vendetta's (2005, James McTeigue) knee-jerk evocation of a supposed new fascism. To put it another way, Jason's struggle is against not only a malevolent state but also his potentially amoral nature.

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