Monday, August 13, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

It was a movie-going weekend for me and Mrs. Speculator. We decided to do a little catch-up on Saturday, and went to see two movies at our favorite cinema (followed up by a visit to Cloos’ Coney Island, which is always a good thing). The first movie we saw was The Bourne Ultimatum, which, as I think about it, didn’t really have an ultimatum associated with it.

Given the action movies of this summer so far, Ultimatum has a lot of competition to measure up to; unfortunately, I don’t think it succeeds. While the movie was going on, I was wrapped up in the few chases and few fights there were and following Jason Bourne out of the maze that his life has become. But after the movie was done, I wondered to myself “what just happened?” And sadly, the only conclusion I could come to was “not very much.”

I’m reminded of the Lensman series of books by E. E. Smith, wherein each successive book has the hero going up against a villain, struggling but at the end finding a way to overcome them, then finding out that the villain was only the next level in a vast conspiracy. And so the cycle repeats itself for each novel. The first Bourne movie was thrilling because of the different kind of story it told—a trained assassin wanting to get out and finding out about the vast conspiracy he was involved in, including the process that set him with his new identity and abilities. In some ways, Jason Bourne was a super-hero, able to do what normal people could not imagine, able to face any challenge, and when all was done, with the ability to step back into a secret identity and hide from curious eyes. Also, director Paul Greengrass did some interesting things cinematically and Matt Damon played the unhappy assassin stoically and with a lot of stylish flair in his lack of typical action hero theatrics. But this is the third movie in the series, and nothing has changed. Bourne is still unhappy and he keeps working his way to the next biggest conspiracy. But the tactics of those that pursue him have not changed at all; they keep throwing “assets” at him (other assassins trained in the way that he has been trained) and he keeps eluding them and all the multinational police force that are trying to capture him.

This particular movie is also depressing in its cynicism about…well, about everything. For instance, at one point the CIA takes over the CCTV cameras in a major London train station to track Bourne as he attempts to meet with a contact. I realize that the CIA is perhaps the worst boogieman in American cinema, capable of corrupting anything they touch, but I have a lot of trouble accepting that the British government would have allowed a back door that allowed American operatives to hijack their tools. Bourne is also able to travel to pretty much any country he wants, which calls into question all of the security measures in place since 9/11. Most telling is that the bad guys in this segment of the trilogy have reinstituted the program that created Bourne in the first place and are using their newly formed assassins to kill American citizens. Of course, this is not what really concerns Bourne, but it serves as the lynchpin for the comeuppance that the CIA so richly deserves in this movie.

Also depressing was the acting by what should have been an excellent supporting cast. David Straithairn plays Noah Vosen, the corrupted CIA official that Bourne ultimately goes up against, but the role is so restraining that he really is not allowed to act. He only ever has to react to the things that Bourne does in the field and act sneaky, but his character is so ridiculously flat that it’s hard to really hate him. He clearly is just another cog in the machine that Bourne is fighting and easily replaceable by any other person who believes in country over ethics. Joan Allen reprises her role as Pam Landy, the CIA project manager who was chasing Bourne in the second movie, this time brought in to help Vosen when he realizes who he is up against. Ultimately, Landy turns against the CIA when she discovers the plot Bourne has accidentally blown the lid off of, but this act of turning is very wooden and without any emotion at all. N fact, coming to the aid of Bourne, as she does by the end of the film, feels like a real reversal in the character, but the change in personality happens near instantaneously. I guess we can believe that her distress at Vosen’s nonchalance at doing anything he feels his job requires is enough to change her affiliation, but there is no struggle for her. And again, the role is very shallow and not really worth an actress of Allen’s skill.

The cinematography is the same as the first two movies: non-stop action jump-cutting through the best action scenes, so that it is impossible to follow exactly what happens. And by the end of the movie, it doesn’t really matter—Bourne exposes another level of the corrupt agency he has worked for then gets away. There is no real indication that the corruption is totally uncovered—the previous movies all seemed to come some sort of resting place before the next larger web scoops up Bourne. Nothing here indicates that the conspiracies don’t continue, and I would argue that the pattern of the series pretty much guarantees that the conspiracies go on.

So when I thought back on the movie, I was left wondering what the point was. Nothing we haven’t already seen before happens—just different people getting in the way of Bourne’s quest for “truth.” And while the inertia of the ride was enough to sustain it while sitting in the theatre, I really walked away feeling pretty empty and disappointed.

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