Sunday, September 09, 2007

Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum

The thing about Matt Damon's Jason Bourne--the main thing, what sets him apart from other action movie heroes--is that he knows the unbelievable stuff he's going to do will hurt. As he leaps through windows and out moving vehicles, and intentionally crashes cars he's driving to escape or disable pursuers, there is almost always a moment where you see Bourne steeling himself, preparing for the pain, bracing for impact.

Human beings don't just experience pain, we fear it. Many of us avoid going to the dentist, we talk our way out of physical confrontations, we delay breaking up with people who are obviously wrong for us, all because we don't want to experience pain. In the movies, those principles are forgotten--behaving as our normal cowardly selves isn't terribly cinematic, so the human pain avoidance mechanism is overridden. Not only do people in movies willingly or even willfully put themselves in harm's way, they often seem to shrug off pain as if they were loaded to the gills with Vicodin. Even if they do get hurt--usually for plot-specific, drama-enhancing purposes--they don't seem to worry too much about it, before or after.

There was a notable exception to this in the first Die Hard movie. There's a moment in that film where the protagonist, John McClane, is in a firefight with his enemies, and he has to retreat. The problem is that he's barefoot, and the floor all around him is covered in broken glass. You get a second where it registers on Bruce Willis's face that this is his situation, and you wordlessly get the normal, human reaction, "Run across broken glass? Screw that!" before he's forced to go through the rest of the movie with shards of glass embedded in his feet.

Throughout all three of the Bourne movies, that type of moment happens repeatedly, and it helps remind us that Damon's car-chasing, ass-kicking superspy is human. That, in turn, adds some needed spice to the series' many action set pieces, which in this installment includes chases by car, motorbike, and on foot, in train stations, on roof tops, and on the streets of cities in four continents. The chases themselves are exhilarating and well-shot, but the main thing is that the audience feels affinity for the ultracapable but always outnumbered Bourne. If you don't empathize with Bourne's pained expression as he executes yet another agonizing-but-necessary stunt, you probably won't enjoy the movie.

I mean, it's not like the writing is all that good. As far as plot goes, it's amazing how little things moved along over the entire three-film series--given how many dance steps are repeated from the second film, you almost have to wonder why that film, the Bourne Supremacy, was even necessary. You get repetitions of some chestnut-standard scenes--chase through the rail station, cops summoned to European CIA safehouse, the "I'm talking to you on the phone while observing you from afar scene" which is always followed by some CIA bigwig saying "Oh my God, he's in [insert name of city here]! Seal off a ten-block radius!"

Oh, and while we're on this thing with the ten-block radii, you've also got some seriously hackneyed dialog. Three movies into the series, enough people are still saying "You really don't remember, do you?" to Bourne that my brother-in-law was mocking it during dinner afterward. And then there's the CIA bigwigs yelling out things like "I want his bank accounts, credit cards, phone records...I want to know what he's thinking before he thinks it."

Um, good luck with that. Somewhere along the line Hollywood got the idea that running covert operations for the CIA was a bit like directing live television. For all our sakes, I hope that this is just them being imaginative.

Now that I've spent some time panning the writing, let's get back to what Bourne Ultimatum did right. Julia Stiles, who was a bit of tacked-on window dressing in the first two movies, finally gets something to do in the third film. As pointed out by the guys at Filmspotting, there are some great echoes of previous installments in the series, which add a bit of depth. The film also features an undercurrent of commentary on the moral responsibility of Americans who volunteer to serve their government uncritically, then get pointed at all the wrong targets in the name of "saving American lives."

That aside, we don't see the Bourne movies for plot or subtext or even for Stiles. We watch for the actions scenes, and the set pieces in this film, hold up remarkably well. There's one of Bourne leading a civilian through an obstacle course of surveillance that is truly masterful, and there's a wonderfully detailed rooftop chase that's very impressive. Actually, the only action scene in the movie that was disappointing was the much-vaunted final car chase through Manhattan. While there have been a lot of complaints about the use of "shakycam" in this film--the perpetually in-motion handheld camera that shakes as its operators follow the action--I wasn't bothered by it. I've criticized the use of shakycam before, but here I thought it was used effectively to emphasize the frenzy of some of the scenes. Then again, I was forewarned about the cameras shakiness and made sure to get me and mine seats at the back of the theater, so I'm sure that others' mileage will vary.

I saw this one with La Chiquita and her family, and the reaction was mixed. Surprisingly, the big endorsement came from my wife, who wants me to refer to her from now on simply as "the Asset." When you can get my foreign-and-independent film-loving honey to buy into your big summer blockbuster that way, I'm happy to say that it's recommended.


A quick update on my summer TV shows:

Mad Men gets more and more impressive. The fifth episode featured one of the most suspenseful moments I've seen on TV since the Sopranos. Since we've been talking about the Asset's reaction to things, she's totally creeped out by this show, and doesn't even want to be in the room when I watch it.

The Bronx is Burning's run ended, presenting absolutely no argument as to why it shouldn't have been half as long, and focused only on baseball. With the "this was 1977!" subplots out the window, the last three episodes were hopelessly thin, often giving John Turturro little to do other than static reaction shots to archival footage of games from the '77 playoffs. The final scene, however, was poignant.

Part of the fun of mentioning the Bronx is Burning Comes from the inevitable appearance by Daniel Sunjata's cyber-stalker in the comments section. I have no idea who the DSCS is, or if there is any veracity to her/their myriad claims. Obviously, I do not endorse them in any way. But it looks like Daniel should definitely keep better control of his baby-mamas.

I gave Saving Grace a second chance, and, surprisingly, it didn't suck. While the mix of religion and entertainment is uncomfortable, specially in a show where the characters use strong PG-13 language, recent episodes were less heavy-handed and included more of a role for Laura San Giacomo (another pint-sized actress I had a crush on in the late 80s and early 90s).

My Boys has remained maddeningly inconsistent. Every time it looks like the series will hit its stride, you get a huge misfire--like the too-obvious spoof of Sex and the City a couple of weeks back. Why spoof a show that was canceled a few years back, and therefore isn't topical? Because TBS has paired My Boys with Sex and the City reruns on their schedule. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't cast stones, and My Boys criticizing Sex and the City as unrealistic, shallow, and provincial goes way past irony.

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