By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Universal Pictures, 2007]
Matt Damon’s furrowed brow is saving Hollywood. Gracing each of the three insanely popular “Bourne” films, Damon’s agitated wrinkles have implacably faced down an army of psychotic CIA stooges without so much as a sweat, and brought in nearly a billion dollars in box office globally. But the most surprising part of the trilogy’s world domination is its critical reception. “The Bourne Identity,” the first in the franchise, received grudging respect, but the recent “Ultimatum” is being said to “advance[s] the art of action filmmaking and will change it forever” a quote not from an overheated fanboy after a press screening, but rather from Anne Thompson, the reliably insightful columnist for Variety.
And it’s not only Thompson who’s contracted “Bourne” fever. It’s also the hardcore cinephiles who vote on the Village Voice year-end film poll. “Ultimatum” placed 25th on the list, beating out critical darlings like “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “Sweeney Todd.” No other Hollywood blockbuster was even close “The Bourne Ultimatum” probably outgrossed the rest of the list single-handedly. It’s also achieved a mainstream cult enough so that the IFC Center is showing the complete trilogy during its January Midnight series. How has “Bourne” become the only gargantuan Hollywood franchise that’s impressed both mainstream and alternative presses (along with contrarian, smug bastards like myself)?
Most of the recent chatter about the series has focused on director Paul Greengrass’s controversial rapid fire editing techniques, but I think much of the film’s success has to do with Doug Liman’s original conception of the series (along with that aforementioned brow of Damon’s). Liman, director of the first “Bourne” and executive producer of all three, had just come off the successes of helming “Swingers” and “Go” and was given free reign on his next project. He chose “Bourne,” wanting to make a different kind of action film, one with a relatively modest budget of $60 million and a different conception of screen combat. In talking to the BBC about the martial arts used in the film, Liman said, “It is ridiculously efficient. You don’t break a sweat or expend any energy, you use your opponents energy against him. And we thought that’s Jason Bourne, that’s how he’ll do everything in this movie. He’ll figure out the simplest, least energetic, most efficient way to get something done.”
All three “Bournes” have this emphasis on process, on Damon solving a series of puzzles as quickly and effortlessly as possible. It drops heroism in favor of a robotic rationality and a feel for the traumas of real physical violence. Jason Bourne, an amnesiac, cannot express himself through speech, so he does so through action you can almost read his mind’s calculations through every blunt force gesture. Such attention to physical detail was a breath of fresh air in the action genre, which had veered closer to the self-parodic cartoonishness of the “Mission: Impossible” films. And since most critics came of cinematic age in the ’70s, the throwback grittiness of the series gave them ample space for the William Friedkin comparisons they love so well. Toss in some vague political commentary about civil liberties, which became groaningly obvious in “Ultimatum,” and there was more than enough to fill up a generous word count.
When Greengrass took over the series with the second entry, “The Bourne Supremacy,” he retained the general concept of action as puzzle solving, but elided much more visual information by cutting shots to shreds. While Liman’s “Identity” moved fast, it’s nothing in comparison to the latter two. David Bordwell, the prominent Wisconsin film professor, has measured the seconds per shot of the trilogy, and “Identity”‘s seems downright slow at three, while “Ultimatum” runs at a faster clip of two seconds per shot. But as Bordwell argues on his blog, it’s not the relative quickness of the shots that has bothered people it’s the shots’ “spasmodic” quality. Greengrass’ editing style cut gestures and camera movements short, keeping viewers constantly on edge, always wondering what lies behind the next cut but what it sacrifices is a coherent articulation of the geography of Bourne’s world. This isn’t to deny the thrills to be had at “The Bourne Ultimatum” (the parking garage smashup is a technical marvel), but it pushes this editing strategy to an extreme that drains the film of the power of its original conception. Bourne was a character who expressed himself through the economy of his actions. Now, what we see are abstracted shards of movement that are more interested in forward motion than character.
If, as Anne Thompson says, that this is the future of action films, it’ll be an exhausting ride with diminishing returns. But what marks the “Bourne” franchise out is its ability to garner this kind of controversy one actually about a film’s style, a conversation that is so rare in modern film criticism but so necessary. While I think Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” was the more rewarding, there’s no denying that all three are films worth grappling with and their influence will be felt for years to come, especially in the next cycle of “Bourne”-ian Bond flicks.