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Paul Greengrass: The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Making more of the same seem new

by Chris Knipp
The Bourne stock is high. Paul Greengrass, who's made the last two, is a good director. He proved his mettle with his documentary-style history film about Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday, and another one last year, United 93.

Once upon a time action films ended with a chase. In the stripped down action world of Jason Bourne, the whole film is a chase. And that is fine. Matt Damon is a brilliant action star; he is the Bourne francise, as Bruce Willis is his franchise. Bourne is a new kind of hero. He is a cipher who suffers, a hyper-kinetic version of a spy hero, because he doesn't know who he is, and everyone is his enemy, and he is always in a foreign country. The Bourne Ultimatum, the latest, but no doubt not the ultimate, of the series, begins with Bourne in Moscow, and then moves to Paris and London and Madrid and Tangier and New York. Bourne is as much at home and as much a stranger in all of these places and we love this blurry world tour with bodies and bullets and cars flying. Jason Bourne doesn't know who he is or what happened but he has astonishing skills. He's the ultimate human weapon, lethal and indestructible, and he speaks good Russian, French, German, and Spanish and can open any door, get past any code, dodge any pursuer. He's more than a spy: He's a wily trickster. He slips through everyone's fingers, if he even leaves them fingers to slip through. And that makes him a character of folklore, a creature of our dreams.

But let's not kid ourselves. With each successive sequel, the series is growing thinner. The Bourne Identity, which was based on a Robert Ludlum novel and directed by the young Doug Liman (Greengrass is ten years older), took the time to establish places and people and had the intense relationship between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente) -- something approaching a love interest. Potente had an air of recklessness and danger that made her a good match. This was the essential Bourne film. It began with Bourne emerging from the water, like some kind of sea birth. The Bourne Supremacy (the ante is upped in each title, as if screaming to be noticed) also had a long prelude full of tropical atmosphere. It had moments of tragedy and betrayal. The first film had Chris Cooper and Clive Owen and Brian Cox. Cooper and Owen dropped out, and we got Joan Allen and David Strathairn. Albert Finney seems a rumpled version of Cox, who's gone now, and he is underused.

But the spy-chaser machinery brought to bear against Bourne is really meaningless except as a foil. The CIA chase after Bourne is inherently absurd. Tim Wiener's definitive history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, is just out and we know to put it rather crudely that the CIA story is a litany of failures and mistakes. There have been follies, and we'll never know how much money was wasted and on what. But even so, nutty as the CIA is, would all of Langley be marshaled in a giant war room to track down a single man--who only attacks when he's attacked--and whose threat seems to be that he may remember who he is and what he was supposed to do? Doesn't that make us all dangerous? The marvel is that the CIA can track Bourne on TV monitors all over the room that come up with sound and pictures and tap into cell phones at a yelled command from Strathairn. The believable part is that Bourne always dodges or offs the CIA "assets" who're after him and escapes from the net. And Bourne catches them all napping and they lead him directly to the information they seem to want to hide from him. That part is very convincing.

Ultimatum is a post-Abu Ghraib story, showing that hoods and water-boarding and sleep deprivation were used in Bourne's training. But in year seven of Bush II, the arrest of some CIA chiefs for using harsh tactics in their black operations seems unlikely. These are just brief allusions, anyway: the special ops, even though there's a new one revealed, "Blackbriar," were more fully developed in The Bourne Supremacy than here.

Greengrass uses a technique of very rapid editing and very unsteady camera (Liman's camera work did not require Dramamine, but his does). He introduced that in Supremacy, and he continues it in Ultimatum. This in time may date, like the zooms of the Seventies, but for now it makes the visuals seem fresh.

It always seemed Matt Damon was an awfully funny kind of matinee idol, a strange degeneration of the Hero: he looks more than anything like a burly bellhop. But he has proven in various films that he's a good actor-- particularly adept at showing self doubt or emotional disconnection. I prefer Malkovitch's Tom Ripley to his, but his (in Minghella's film) gets best at the core of Patricia Highsmith's antihero -- his lack of affect. Though the Bourne action goes so fast you barely get a chance to appreciate it, Damon's obviously also an athlete. He may be no kung fu star, but better than that, he convinces you Bourne is not a showoff but simply a deadly physical opponent.

Given the increasing dilution of content, it's a bit surprising that the Bourne franchise films are seen as "intelligent" or even that they're seen as "spy" films. Yes, there's something classy about them, and they're not dumb by any means. They're battles of wits and skill as well as brawn and technology. And they are great fun to watch, even though the material is getting diluted and stretched.

David Denby cites Manohla Dargis as saying that "the drama of 'Identity' was existential (Who am I?) and the drama of 'Supremacy' was moral (What did I do?)" and concludes that "the drama of 'Ultimatum' is redemptive: How can I escape what I am?" Very neat, but rather artificial, since all these questions occur in each movie, and yet there is no answer in any of them. It is another kind of stretching, this time by the film critics, to attach profound significance to these three movies and make them into a trilogy. It makes more sense to imagine the filmmakers considering how they can make more of the same and yet make it still seem new. They succeed at that, and that's why the series can go on.
©Chris Knipp 2007. Chris Knipp, of San Francisco, writes about movies, politics and art on his blogsite.

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This story was published on August 8, 2007.