The Bourne Ultimatum…Wow!

Nadia and I watched 'The Bourne Ultimatum' last night. Nadia hated it (and stole the title of this blog posting too), but I thought it was one of the best movies I've seen this year. I'll talk about both points of view, starting with mine first. Yes, this will be a long post.

The Plot

The movie starts off almost exactly where the last one left off: with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in Moscow, evading capture from the police. He does so, of course, but while doing this realizes that his "fight" isn't with everyone who is trying to capture him -- it's with the people who started it all. And that's pretty much what the rest of the movie is about: him getting back at the people who made him what he is now. Of course, that's easier said than done. There are wheels within wheels within wheels (to use an oft-repeated phrase from the 'Dune' series of books) and, in the movie, we're taken on a journey in which all this plays out. And while the film's plot is really good -- even though they had to change it considerably from the book's plot because a lot of what's in the book simply isn't relevant in this day and age -- it's actually the production of the movie that I really enjoyed.

First-Person Immersion

I've seen only one other Paul Greengrass movie, 'The Bourne Supremacy', and I really like his style of directing. This time, though, he's stepped everything up a notch. Especially in the action sequences. Not only do you feel like you're in the action, which at times makes you want to step back to avoid injuring yourself, you also see all of the action in the first person. For example, there's this long chase scene in Tangier in which Bourne is both dodging the police and trying to save Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles) from Desh Bouksani (Joey Ansah), a CIA assassin who has been instructed to kill them both.

What's really cool about this is that, at no point during the entire sequence, do you see an overview of anything. Except for initial framing shots, there are no shots from obviously crane-mounted cameras, no shots from helicopters, and no long or wide shots that let you think "ah, so he's there, she's there, and he's...there; okay, now it all makes sense to me". No, it's all in the first person: you only see as much as, say, Bourne sees from his rooftop vantage point. You see Parons' bobbing blonde head in the middle of a crowd at the end of a narrow alleyway (at the top of your screen) and, jerking the camera down a bit, you see Bouksani's purposeful but quick-moving figure at the start of that alley (at the bottom of your screen). Next, the camera whips around (as your head would if you were to look over your shoulder) and you see a couple of policemen climbing over the roof, shouting and gesturing. You look over the other way (another camera whip-around) and you see (i.e. choose, evaluate, and estimate) the route you'll be taking next. Yes, you're seeing everything as Bourne sees it and this immersion into the action itself gives the movie a whole different feel to the movie.

It's the same with most other shots. Parsons looks over her shoulder and the next shot is of a crowd of people covering the bottom-half the screen. Incongruous among them is Bouksani who is looking directly at you and is making his way through the crowd as quickly as he can. You only ever see the top two-thirds of his face. But, then, that's all Parsons sees so that's all you're going to get too.

Later, when Bourne and Bouksani finally fight hand-to-hand (as expected), you feel as if you're actually standing in that small room (which, in fact, the cameraman is), watching the fight happen right next to you. It's close combat and, well, you're very close to it all. At one point you almost want to jump back to avoid being rammed into the wall. It's quite exciting.

What I love about this kind of direction is the immediacy of it all. If you've played first-person shooter games on the computer, you'll feel right at home. The immersion thing works, and it works really well. Yes, the camera bobs around (making some people nauseous) and jerks from one shot to the next (making the whole thing a little hard to follow) but the director makes sure that you get the time to follow everything that's going on nonetheless.

Compare this to other, more traditional, fight sequences. Had this been a traditional action movie, in that Bourne-Bouksani fight, you would have had shots from outside the window, from inside one of the walls (just before someone was slammed into it, of course), and through a really-wide door or a conveniently camera-sized gap in one of the walls. Yes, you would have been an obviously-outside observer looking in. Not an obviously-inside observe looking at the fight going on right next to you. It might be hard to see the difference between the two at first, but imagine the difference between watching a tennis match on TV and watching the same match from a ball boy's point of view. Who actually hears and feels the ball fly by? Who has to swing his head left to right in order to follow the action? And who, occasionally, gets whacked on the head by a stray ball? That's the difference between the two styles.

Evolution in Style

In fact, Greengrass has almost completely undone the stylistic advantage that Hong Kong cinema had over Hollywood in terms of filming fighting and action sequences. In Hong Kong cinema, you'd be perpendicular to the action and would see the punch being delivered (say, from left to right), land on the opponent, and the opponent react to it (because he actually got lightly whacked). In the Hollywood style you would often see the punch being delivered not across your line of vision, but towards you or away from you. The actual punch could therefore easily end well before the opponents face and the opponent would time his backward jerk with the moment of supposed contact. That was what made Hollywood look fake and Hong Kong cinema look so much more realistic. Now an English director is using hand-held cameras and whipping-around motion to capture everything much more realistically (because you're in the action itself) than Hong Kong cinema ever did. And he's doing it really well too.

Particularly good, by the way, are the nicely choreographed fight sequences between Bourne and the other CIA operatives (or, as they're called in the movie, "assets"). These people are Bourne's equals. They know what he knows and both of them know that it's only a minor thing that could swing the fight either way. The fight in Tangier was one such example. What's really cool is when you realize that this is also an example of a new evolution in movie fight sequences between reasonably matched opponents. Its brutal, visceral, and real. You're not the underdog and you're not the obviously superior fighter. You're equal. It's sort of like the extended fight sequence between Neo and Agent Smith in the Matrix Revolutions (though with a lot less literal flying-through-the-air!). The hero doesn't get pummelled all the way till the end when he delivers the oh-so-unexpected knock-out punch. No, like I said earlier, it's like a tennis volley. Left, right, left, right, left, right, oops you missed and so now you're dead.

Other Niceties

I also like the way silence is used in the movie (sorry Nadia!). It's sort of the way M. Night Shyamalan uses it in his movies, but not quite (Shyamalan uses it more effectively). Here the silences reflect, in many ways, the blanks in Bourne's mind. There's a lot to say, a lot that can be said, maybe even a lot that you want said, but no...there's just silence. Again, this adds to the feeling of immersion. And to the feeling of real life. In a regular movie, some of those silences could have been filled with smartly-written dialogue. In this movie, well, things aren't that neat and tidy. You don't know what to say, so you don't say anything. Yes, it's long and uncomfortable, but there it is. It's not supposed to cut quickly into the next scene.

Speaking of not being neat and tidy, there are number of loose threads that don't get neatly tied at the end either. Whether that's to leave room for a sequel or to reflect life where things aren't always perfect, I don't know. I just like the fact that increasingly film makers are realizing that you don't always have to box everything nicely and neatly at the end. You can leave some questions unanswered. And that's okay.


It's not just me who likes the movie, by the way. Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, one of the critics I admire most, loves it too. She writes:
[Action] movies desperately need more guys like Greengrass. The violence in "The Bourne Ultimatum" is exciting, all right. But very few contemporary directors know how to film action and violence with the kind of chaotic clarity Greengrass does. That may seem like a contradiction, but Greengrass knows how to use a movie frame so we know where to look every instant -- and still, we can't ever be certain that we're catching it all, because violence by its nature is unmanageable.

The people at Monsters & Critics like it too:
Greengrass has emerged as a master of balance. He builds tension expertly, singularly. But his work isn’t simple. Key narrative shots are reached through layers of filters, but then life is like that.

I agree. The layering is nicely done. And you really have to be into the movie to fully follow what's going on.


Of course, there are others who don't it at all. And there are, indeed, things about the movie that made me roll my eyes. Like some of the trying-too-hard-to-be-a-spy dialogue. Greengrass also tried to be too much like Shyamalan in some cases when he unnecessarily filmed even non-action scenes with a hand-held camera. Some of the references to earlier Bourne movies were also a little too obvious; except for the ending scene which mirrors the starting scene of the entire trilogy. That bit was cool.

A lot of people didn't like the motion sickness-inducing shots in particular and, in general, don't like Greeengrass' style at all. Craig Rhodes explains it really well in a reply to Zacharek's article on Salon:
I loved "The Bourne Identity" but hate both sequels largely because of the Greengrass formula. The directing, editing and shooting are from the MTV school of film making. The result indicates a mediocre director trying to compensate by throwing in every music video trick in the book. Character development and plot are secondary to technique.

After which he goes on to say:
The fact that most critics are praising Greengrass' latest effort sadly indicates how the "nano-second attention span" has been fully integrated into our culture.

There is really only one appropriate reply to this second quote of his: "Like, duh!"

The fact is that movie-making is evolving. Newer writers, directors, producers, and cinematographers are trying different things. And they've been trying different things for years. Take Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic' in which different colour tints are used in the film's different story lines (also used very effectively in the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy). Or take Robert Zemeckis' 'Cast Away' in which there is no background music for the first 1 hour 43 minutes of the movie (only 15 minutes of musical score were written for the entire film). More often that not, though, recent shifts in movie-making styles have been based around special effects (both subtle and large-scale). The quick-cutting style, meanwhile, is something that started with television. And yes, with MTV music videos (and ads). However, more and more "serious" shows are now using it now too. And that is starting to validate its use where and when appropriate.

It's also partly a generational thing. Two generations ago we had Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' and the original 'Star Trek' television series -- both simpler and slower classics. One generation ago we had James Cameron's 'Terminator' and 'The A-Team ' -- both good, solid action pieces that have stood the test of time. In this generation we have Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' and 'NYPD Blue' -- with the TV show being a little ahead of its time in the way it was shot, specifically in terms of camera angles and movements. Maybe the next generational shift is targeted, not at people who enjoy reading books, but at those who are used to switching between five separate windows on their computer, one of which is a live chat and another of which is a media player. Maybe the next generation of film and television styles will be exemplified by Paul Greengrass' 'The Bourne Supremacy and 'CSI' (again with the cool camera angles). Or maybe we'll look back at this particular effort of Greengrass' and will think that it was clunky and amateurish (though still ahead of its time) compared to what is yet to come. Who knows?

My point is, 'The Bourne Ultimatum' could have been shot in a more traditional manner but that would have it made just any other good action movie. Like 'Die Hard 4.0', for example. That was a good movie with a fun story line that matched the current action movie-making style. You couldn't have done that with Ultimatum, just like this style wouldn't have worked in 4.0. In Ultimatum, you need to be on the ground, part of the action, in a chaotic and confused environment, but still be able follow what was going on. That's what the movie required and I think Greengrass pulled that off exceptionally well.