Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bourne Again

Okay so first thing’s first: can anyone remind me what happened in the last one? All I can remember is Franka Potente driving a jeep off a bridge and the camera twitching uncontrollably like Katherine Hepburn on one of those vibrating benches that Stern is such a fan of. The Bourne Supremacy has been canonized in the past three years (just the other day a friend referred to it as “a masterpiece of the genre”) but I remember despising it, often with me fighting the urge to exit the theater and go vomit in a corner or at the very least track down some Dramamine post haste.

Actually I was about to go into an extended rant on why Supremacy didn’t work for me but I realized I said it best on my (defunct) Geocities page so I’ll just reprint the choice excerpts below. I’ll be back in a minute:

…this is really a failure. An ambitious failure mind you, but ultimately an unmitigated one, with every single scene rife with glaring missteps and fatal miscalculations by all parties involved. Put bluntly, Greengrass is a hack (I was thoroughly unimpressed with his horrifically over-praised Bloody Sunday) relying upon the same stylistic crutch he used in his previous film. While the first film evoked the films of the cold war with its use of wide angles, long takes, artfully choreographed blocking and an overall jazzy tone that set the mood for the perfect summer film, Bourne 2 finds the filmmakers striving for portent and manufactured pathos, and involves a visual scheme just this side of epileptic (there's a word for critics who bag on Michael Bay's editing while applauding Greengrass' slash-and-hack approach here: they're called hypocrites). Plot is largely inconsequential, as I suspected the filmmakers had developed amnesia somewhere between Naples and Berlin, and the action (including the much heralded climactic car chase) is lacking any kind of emotional tangibility or spacial[sp] coherence. Frankly, I cared less and less about the film with each passing minute
--July 23, 2004

And I’m back. If I could just make a couple of less knee-jerk observations with three years removed from my disappointment, I’d say my opinion of director Paul Greengrass has softened somewhat. The hack label was unfair, and while I’ll never respond to it in the way its champions do, I don’t think anyone could have made a better film of United 93. I think Greengrass is a serious filmmaker who’s got a lot more on his mind than frivolous summer fun and he lends a lot of weight to a series which really started out as a Cold War lark.

I tend to over-praise Liman’s first Bourne film, but there was almost a “Gee whiz” sense of discovery to the character; something about the whole amnesia angle and Damon’s apple-cheeked performance. It was the ultimate little boy fantasy: what if you woke up tomorrow and you were a killing machine on the run from the government? The direction was crisp and clean and simple, and really allowed you to appreciate the incredible stunt work. Long, fluid camera movements that really capture the excitement of watching someone do what they’re great at (they being both Bourne and the action coordinators).

Greengrass, as a citizen of the world, seems a lot more interested in fall-out and the effect these back-office black-ops have not only on their victims but the men and women whose job it is to execute them. It was so angsty and unpleasant and annoyed at the world half the time I thought the camera was shaking because Greengrass was kicking it in frustration. But remove the overused “this time it’s personal” angle and there was really nothing holding the film together. Bourne is pissed. Bourne is under attack. Bourne brings the fight to your door. The plotting existed more to move Bourne from one foreign locale to another (again not a bad thing per say, Bond does the same thing) but Greengrass seemed intent on sapping all of the fun out of the entire endeavor.

I can’t quite pinpoint exactly why I liked The Bourne Ultimatum so much more than Supremacy as it contains many of the same issues, especially the same problematic tendencies from Greengrass. Greengrass directs action the way Baz Luhrman directs dancing; lots of quick cuts and artificial energy without any real sense of what’s happening and where. There’s a brutal hand to hand combat scene in the film’s Tangiers sequence that’s sure to get a lot of attention but I was mostly irritated at how close and tight Greengrass places the camera. It’s like watching two Olympic judo champions from three inches away; we know what they’re doing is spectacular but there’s not enough distance to appreciate it.

Greengrass repeats this visual scheme throughout this film but the result is less detrimental I *think* because there’s more to the film than simply Bourne’s white hot rage at his former employers. For starters, Bourne has been given a truly worthy antagonist in David Strathairn’s deputy director. Strathairn’s character is cut from the same entitled, starched, white beaurocrat mode who’s not above getting his hands dirty. Joan Allen who was fine in the last film was ultimately too professional and “decent” to really hammer home the threat so this film wisely places her in the role of Bourne’s uneasy ally. The film finds Bourne looking inward, desperate to find the men who made him what he is (much of this material reminded me of Wolverine’s past in the X-Men series) only to find he’s more complicate in his behavior than he’d like to believe.

The film has genuine appreciation for the skill of tactics and one-upmanship, with each side covertly moving against the other. While the film is shockingly violent at times its most riveting sequences are those where we see Bourne anticipating several moves ahead of everyone else, such as an early sequence involving a series of phone calls and a busy train station. While I think Greengrass tends to distort our perspective too much in the action sequences, you do get the sense you’re watching a chess game being played.

But mostly the film returns some of the fun to the story. It still pushes the characters into some dark waters but the film itself retains the propulsive energy one would expect from a film opening in the first week of August. The thing fucking cooks; even when it’s unclear what direction we’re heading in there’s no downtime to get worked up over it. Plus (and this is a big one) it certainly compares favorable to most of the summer’s big event films. The series ultimately got away from where I wish it would have gone, but it’s more or less as it should be in the end. Plus, factor in everyone on Earth loved Supremacy except for me so whatever my enthusiasm is for this one, figure yours will be up exponentially.


bloomerang said...

I find it funny that 2 of the 3 Bourne movies have tapped the John Sayles School of Character Actors for their bad guys, with Chris Cooper and now David Strathairn. I can only imagine which Sayles alum may appear if there are any more. Kris Kristofferson? Joe Morton? Tom Wright? Maybe even a small cameo by Jace Alexander or Gordon Clapp as international assassins.

Austintation said...