I missed “The Bourne Supremacy,” the second film in the Bourne franchise, when it hit theaters with a big damp splat in 2004. I think the reviews kept me away. With few exceptions (notably New York Times critic Stephen Holden), the opinion expressed by the critical establishment was, in essence: Paul Greengrass just fucked up a perfectly good thing. Though a few critics dismissed 2002’s “The Bourne Identity,” most seemed to embrace the novelty of Jason Bourne, the secret agent whose ongoing existential crisis made for some diverting entertainment. Now the third film is upon us, and the same establishment’s reaction has been nothing short of idolatry. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, whose writing I greatly admire, seemed to glow; the crush I’ve had on her since her LA Weekly days is besides the point. So, to prepare myself for the final installment, I rented “Supremacy” and watched “Ultimatum’s” trailers online. Two hours and two minutes later, no matter what my dear Manohla said, I was plenty worried about number three.
Mostly, critics blamed “The Bourne Supremacy’s” failure on the relentlessly mercurial camera that has become something of a calling card for director Paul Greengrass. Some even find it physically sickening. It may seem unlikely that the man with a resume of intensely political films (Bloody Sunday, Omagh, United 93) is a great innovator, always pushing the possibilities of where to place his camera. Manohla Dargis, ever astute, probably best defined what he does with her observation that he “fractures film space.” When all the pieces are put together the only thing truly clear is the amount of effort that went into creating all the chaos.
For the better part of a century Hollywood has embraced a craftsman’s approach to constructing the scene. There’s the wide ‘master shot’ to capture all the action and the ‘cut-aways’ (closer shots from opposing angles). Combined, these shots allow for cross-cut editing between talking heads. The idea is to get enough “coverage” for the editor to use in building the scene. Undoubtedly this idea originated in a production office as a smart-money measure to avoid expensive reshoots. Of course technology, lately in the form of the Steady-Cam and the Avid, has rendered the rules of coverage pretty much obsolete. Now you can simply “follow the action.” A lot of filmmakers, both good and bad, embraced this technology; much of the 90’s passed in the form of a long tracking shot. But if a director wants to really _build_ a scene, and is ambitious or has the time, he or she will film from several angles and the editor will work some sort of magic. Or not. And audiences and critics will either remember (the car chase in French Connection) or not. Paul Greengrass, who seemed to adhere to a vaguely documentarian set of “rules” for his previous films here ignores them all in favor of a chaotic mise-en-scene carefully constructed to withhold something important from the viewer: a sense of spatial order. If “The Bourne Supremacy” was fractured, “The Bourne Ultimatum” has been blown to bits, pulverized. Which makes it the better of his two movies though not of all three, and, at least for a long while, a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
In a lesser filmmaker’s hands the flaws of these two films would have been glaring, all but impossible to ignore. What ultimately sinks them is not Mr. Greengrass’ camera, but the writing. This may well be some sort of new filmic cubism, and Mr. Greengrass can fracture film space all he wants, but if there’s not a decent script to build from in the first place, your precious creation, in the end, won’t have any more depth than a stained-glass window. The same writer, Tony Gilroy, has written or co-written all three Bourne films. On numbers 1 and 3 he had help. Number 2, “Supremacy,” was all his, his little baby, and it is packed floor to ceiling with cliches.
“You have no idea what you’re getting into,” says Brian Cox, whose familiarity with the underwritten role has helped him deliver cliches better than most. He also gets to stretch his eyelids, breathe deeply and say, “He’s coming for us.”
“If I even feel somebody behind me I will bring this fight to your doorstep,” says Jason Bourne himself. More than any other spoken line this one still carries the stain of being written. As it’s coming out of his mouth all I can see is the script.
And, “I don’t care what you have to do, get Bourne!” yells Joan Allen, bless her heart, trying awfully hard. She’s better, and has more to do, in the third film.
Where “The Bourne Identity” had a compelling plot pulled from its thematic preoccupations (apply the basic existential query “Who am I?” to the spy genre and you’ve got a thinking person’s action flick), the second film, “The Bourne Supremacy,” was nothing more than a series of unnecessary set pieces, each an obvious attempt to top the last (scene and film), and an inciting incident torn from the pages of “tired, banal and obvious: surefire ways to kick-start a plot.” One-upmanship is no way to make a movie, prevailing wisdom in Hollywood be damned. Producer Frank Marshall said they knew going into “Supremacy” that they had to “top themselves” (in England this would mean they had to “commit suicide” for what it’s worth). This sort of sentiment is not surprising coming from the man with a hand in most of the films of Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. But it is also what fueled the first film’s one misstep: Jason Bourne’s ridiculous ride down the atrium of an apartment building atop a dead man’s back. Of that climax, Marshall stressed needing something “bigger” than what had been written. The result was certainly big and, like a bomb, had its casualties. Namely, believability. The moment Jason Bourne rode the dead man – and lived to make another film – was the moment he stopped being human. And it is, or was, Jason Bourne’s humanity that set this series apart. Although NY Times critic Stephen Holden called Bourne, not dismissively, “A kind of Superman with partial amnesia,” so maybe I’m asking too much (or too little) of my silver screen heroes. Then again, Holden also called Joan Allen’s performance “Just about perfect,” so I’m not ready to give his opinion any more value than my own. Ms. Allen is better in “Ultimatum” simply because Company Gilroy gave her cliches to other actors.
Hollywood films, for the most part, tend to follow the three-act structure. Act One establishes characters and conflicts and usually clocks in at thirty minutes; Act Two takes up the next hour or so and is the meat of the film; the story gets underway, the characters go in pursuit of whatever it is they want (or don’t want), and the majority of our time is taken up by the writer putting obstacles in the way of them achieving their goal. Act Three wraps it all up and resolves any outstanding issues. That’s it. If you already know this, I apologize for the lecture. But when you’re making a sequel, with characters already known to the audience (if not always to themselves), there is an awful lot of explaining that doesn’t need to happen. Obviously Greengrass and Gilroy took this to heart. The last 2 Bourne films arrived in theaters as if fresh from boot camp: lean mean fighting machines. No need for introductions, and really, when it comes right down to it, why waste time wrapping things up? A shot or two will do.
In essence, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is a one-act film, composed of little more than three cat-and-mouse set pieces. And, as with “Supremacy,” each is meant to top the last, though they go about achieving that goal through different means. The first, and best, is contained almost entirely within a London Tube station and works as well as it
does because its choreography is so obviously orchestrated; the second, plenty exciting and featuring lots of trendy Parkour, takes place in and atop a maze-like Moroccan village, culminating in the best fight scene Greengrass has ever filmed; and the third brings Jason Bourne “home” to New York City where everything, though not without some excitement, just breaks down into utter silliness. We’re not interested in actual writing here, or people, or ideas, we are interested in topping ourselves. Is the only way to accomplish this by driving a car off a building backwards? I’m not sure how much praise Greengrass deserves for his contribution to the genre when most of the time during the New York set piece all I could think of was, “It must have been a bitch to get the permit for that!”