Monday, August 6, 2007

Slouching Toward New York City to be Bourne

Note: It seems from surveying the Web that the first challenge in writing a review of the latest installment of the Jason Bourne spy-thriller film franchise, "The Bourne Ultimatum", is to come up with a headline that plays on the name of the title character. Most of the obvious ones have been taken. (For those interested "The Bourne Identity Theft" seems to be unclaimed.) My entry in the competition, which appears above, is not gratuitous - the film is, indeed, about a man, painfully but inexorably, making his way to the Big Apple to try to start his life over. Test marketing of my second title choice, "Three Years of the Condor", indicates that it relies too much on a familiarity with the oddly similar Robert Redford spy thriller of 30 years ago. So it goes.

When we last left Jason Bourne, played with precisely the right level of slow-burn intensity by now top-of-the-A-list actor Matt Damon, he was battling the powers that be - namely his former spy masters in the CIA - trying to stay alive long enough to determine his long-lost identity and, perhaps, to extract revenge from those who deprived him of it.

"When exactly," you might ask, "was that?" Could it have been at the end of "The Bourne Identity", the movie that kicked off the film adaptations of the Robert Ludlum novels? Yes, it could have been. Or was it somewhere during the second installment "The Bourne Supremacy"? That's a possibility, too. Well, it's hard to say just when we last left our out-in-the cold spy and, honestly, it doesn't matter all that much. You see, Jason Bourne inhabits a Nietzschean action-adventure world of eternal repetition, where, although being an Übermensch has its advantages, they don't include being able to advance the storyline very much.

Bourne is the latest rendition of a popular hero on an epic quest, a particularly existential one at that. "Who am I?" is the question that nags at him, amplified in "Ultimatum" by nasty flashbacks during which he is escorted, questioned and tortured by vaguely familiar people in an unidentified ghostly white building. (A plaque on one of the doors may have read "Richard B. Cheney Day Spa", but since these flashbacks occur in dreamland soft focus, it's hard to say for sure.) We and Bourne are subjected to these episodes of uninvited recovered memory a half-dozen times during the course of the movie, partly so that we can share his anguish at the intrusion of these post-traumatic recollections and partly so that we can, along with Bourne, come to identify each of the "vaguely familiar people" at appropriate turns of the plot, to the extent that there is one. Given the choice, I would have opted for the use of name tags to accomplish the same purpose.

These flashbacks are notable for another reason. That is that they leave Bourne momentarily incapacitated, such is the pain of his recalled agony and, apparently, such is the visceral dread of not knowing ones true identity. (Am I the only one who might find this kind of oblivion desirable?) His reaction may not seem out of the ordinary, but, be aware, this Jason Bourne is a man hardly phased by the detonation of a bomb a few feet away or by the multiple bone-crushing impacts of high-speed automobile collisions. In fact, the assassins - assets in spook speak - who are dispatched to kill him would have fared better if they would have traded in their sniper rifles, razors blades, and high explosives for a hand-held video player loaded with clips from one of Bourne's PTSD reruns. Thus it is, though, with eternal repetition: some people never learn.

With flashbacks to refresh our and Bourne's memories - not to mention two feature-length movies available on DVD on the shelf - we are sure of this much: Jason Bourne is an exquisitely trained contract-killer, the product of some super-secret, black-ops contract-killer factory set up - and shortly thereafter shut down - in the not too distant past by highly-placed individuals in the CIA who would just as soon not be associated with it anymore. (How reviled was this program? Apparently enough so that even the then White House Counselor, Alberto Gonzales, was reluctant to issue a memorandum authorizing its continued operation. It was that scary.) Needless to say the fathers of said program would like to see it dead and buried, along with Jason Bourne, who is both a durable and an enduring reminder of their youthful extralegal excesses, not to mention a potential obstacle to their hoped-for advancement up the civil service ladder and golden-years retirement plans.

Bourne, though, is a man on a singular mission, the restitution of his former identity. He has no secondary goals, no ideological or political allegiance, and, in spite of his wits, no possibility of finding a safe haven in all the world, a point made brutally clear in the second film. Bourne will either succeed or he will die. Ironically his erstwhile masters fail to recognize the magnitude of the force that impels Bourne toward his reckoning with them, and, what is more, they fail - time after time - to appreciate how marvelously they have succeeded in transforming him into the perfect killing machine that they had originally sought to create. Eternal repetition, unfortunately for them, strikes again.

The first thing that rescues "Ultimatum" from B-movie oblivion is Damon's ability to bring to his Bourne a convincing mix of world-weariness, single-minded determination, and humanity. Without this balance the character could easily have morphed into a robot or a sociopath. Bourne is a hero, but a reluctant one, a trained killer for whom killing has become an unavoidable necessity. And while he barely breaks a sweat fending off the agents who are trying to eliminate him, an expression of true desperation flashes across his face when he sees that an ally, even one only briefly enlisted to assist him on his quest, has been placed in jeopardy. These are glimpses of the "inner" Bourne that Damon's performance reveals and they, more than any of the rather pedestrian facts about his previous life that we learn in the course of the film, suggest that this man's identity may indeed be worth reviving after all - especially given the cost that must be paid in human life, not to mention late-model luxury automobiles.

Although much of "Ultimatum" is little more than a framework in which the lead character ventures from place to place, battling the bad guys, it has the good sense not only to change, but even to celebrate, the scenery. Thus the film's second saving grace: it works well as a travelogue, a violent, kinetic one, but a travelogue, nevertheless. It sweeps us from the bustle of Waterloo Station in London, to the cluttered rooftops of Tangiers, landing finally on the gritty streets of Manhattan. The variety of these different settings not only enlivens the story, it also reinforces our understanding of Jason Bourne. Whatever his mysterious pedigree, he moves with ease between cultures, orients himself readily in any new city, and switches fluently to the local dialect, whatever that might be. (In this regard the movie would make for an impressive, if off-kilter, come-on for Berlitz or the Travel Channel - "visit exciting new places, meet the people there, speak their language and decimate the local constabulary.") Sadly, this film does nothing to explore the origins of this facet of the "Bourne identity" and leaves us longing to know more about the history of this man, an accomplishment of sorts, since a sequel is an inevitability, if not for dramatic reasons, then for purely financial ones.

The third redeeming feature of "Ultimatum" is its remarkable fight scenes. In recent years the innovation in action movies has been the introduction of "bullet time", a technique tuned to commercial perfection with "The Matrix" series. In bullet time we witness events from a vantage point of physical - and emotional - detachment. The action - and bullets and knives and fists of fury - slow to a veritable crawl and we are encouraged to savor the violence the way we might, say, a fine chianti. In "Ultimatum" director Paul Greengrass, turns the tables, dispensing with ironic distance and, instead, immerses us viscerally in physical combat. Shaky hand-held camera work and staccato cuts erode any fixed frame of reference we might have hung on to and we are pressed from the safe haven of the bullet-time voyeur into the middle of the hand-to-hand battle as it unfolds. The effect is not unlike the unraveling of a cubist painting of a fight, in which the components, having been first assembled - with false simultaneity - as a patchwork on a canvas, then throw off their temporal confinement in a fractured attempt to restore some sort of time-ordered sensibility - "The Bourne Guernica", if you will.

With regard to the talented supporting cast, I wish I could say that "Ultimatum" had put them to good use, but it hasn't. David Strathairn is saddled with the unbecoming role of CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen, a Paul Wolfowitz want-to-be, if there ever was one. Vosen is smart enough to have weaseled his way to a position of considerable power, but not smart enough to know when he is in over his head. His armchair ruthlessness and clueless predictability hardly make him a worthy opponent; Bourne bats him around much as a cat would a hapless mouse. Strathairn deserves better.

Joan Allen, a favorite actress of mine, does a serviceable job as Pamela Landy, also a CIA higher-up, but one dedicated more to serving her country than her career. Her role demands that she demonstrate that - as Holly Hunter's character observed in "Broadcast News" - it is, in fact, awful to always be the smartest person in the room. To some extent Landy is Bourne's Doppelgänger, a noble soul battling the powers that be, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery in which she has been unwittingly ensnared. Of course she butts heads with Vosen, but these confrontations are mostly uninspired. Indeed, one of them is a set piece for a lecture by Vosen on how the "rules" have changed with the war on terror, meaning, apparently, that it's now OK for middle-level neocon functionaries to whack anyone they want to, anytime, anyplace. Although I don't doubt for a moment that this now may be the case, I would just as soon could have done without the the ham-handed lesson in twisted Bush-Cheney civics. The Bourne-Landy action-at-a-distance duet should have been the emotional center of "Ultimatum", but it receives neither the time on the screen nor the attention in the script that it deserves.

Fetching Julia Stiles reprises her role as Nicky Parsons, a young woman, who, from all appearances, had the decidedly bad luck of having signed on to the now ill-fated CIA build-the-perfect-contact-killer program back when she was scouting out a summer internship. Seeking redemption for these past sins while hoping not to be too readily recognized for her cameos in Bourne's fevered flashbacks, Nicky, too, flees out into the cold and joins Bourne as an ally and, briefly, but all too predictably, as a damsel in distress. The laws of eternal repetition say that these two must never consummate the unexpressed passion they feel for each other, but my bet is that the laws of the Hollywood box office will prevail in the next installment of the series and we will see Nicky doing more than tending to Bourne's bloody, battered hands.

It should not be surprising that the conclusion of "Ultimatum" is unsatisfying since the movie was never intended to move the Bourne narrative forward more than a bit. We are subjected to a tone-deaf "why can't we all just get along" coda, a plea to live and let live, one that didn't work so well for post-Rodney-King Los Angeles and seems bizarrely out of place when directed toward the brotherhood of factory-assembled perfect contract killers. More disappointing is the way, once again, consumer electronics are used to save the day. Without giving too much away, let's just call this particular application of office equipment a "deus ex fax machina". If I never again see a movie whose plot is rescued by the just-in-time use of a cell phone or a laptop computer, it will be too soon. That is my Bourne ultimatum.
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