The Asset

Rene Magritte: Action Hero!I was really impressed with The Bourne Identity. I didn’t see it until the second movie had already been out on DVD for a while, so I’d already heard the consensus, that it was better than you’d expect from an action movie starring Matt Damon and directed by the guy who did Swingers. But even with the advance notice, I was still really surprised by how good it was.

So now The Bourne Ultimatum is out, and it’s been getting really favorable reviews, and they’re all completely deserved. It really is one hell of an action movie. I definitely recommend it to anyone, especially if you liked the first one.

And if you’re wondering whether to see it in a theater or wait for DVD, I’d recommend the theater. Not for the big screen — almost all of the movie is filmed with shaky handheld cameras — but for the crowd. About halfway into the movie, there’s an extended chase scene through Tangier that you can really only describe as masterful. When it finished, the audience was dead silent for a few seconds, and then just burst into applause. I honestly hadn’t realized that I’d been holding my breath for the last minute or so.

One of the things that impresses me so much about the movie is how they do so much with so little. Not so little action, or sets — they shoot on location in at least 5 different cities, and have a big, stunning car chase — but so little dialogue. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Matt Damon has less than 50 lines in the entire movie, and Julia Stiles even less. The plot isn’t all that convoluted, but still, for somebody as long-winded as I am, watching this movie is like seeing acrobats perform without a net. Aren’t the filmmakers afraid that the audience won’t get it? Don’t they want to explain that bit a little more? After having my intelligence assaulted by movies like The DaVinci Code and Transformers, it’s really nice to see one that just expects you to be able to keep up.

Reviewers are saying that this is the best in the series, but the first one is still my favorite. The second one, The Bourne Supremacy, had the most interesting plot twists; and the third one, The Bourne Ultimatum, has by far the best action sequences; but Identity was more complete in terms of setting up characters and how they relate to each other. I wasn’t that impressed with Supremacy; in the end I thought it was entirely competent but mostly forgettable.

Ultimatum is pretty much five extended action sequences strung back to back, but none of it is disposable or forgettable. They’re genuinely suspenseful, and they’re all filmed so as to give you no room for disbelief. There’s none of the detachment of spectacle that you get from most action movies; you’re convinced that everything is really happening, and the cameras just happened to catch it all.

And you can follow Ultimatum just fine without having seen the first two, but I highly recommend seeing Supremacy beforehand. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll say that the epilogue of Supremacy plays a very important part in Ultimatum, and it’s really impressive how they structured it.

Edited to add: Reading a review by Stephanie Zacharek of Salon (warning: there’s a big spoiler in there for The Bourne Supremacy if you haven’t seen it yet) reminded me of another thing that really impressed me about this movie. It’s got a very clear sense of morality. More than you’d expect out of a movie this sparse, based on pure action. And not the pig-headed false patriotism of most action movies. It’s entirely human, not American, and it’s summed up in actions, not words. I’ve already spent more words describing it than the movie uses. It’s all basically summed up by a simple line from Joan Allen’s character after Bourne asks her why she does what she does; it’s something like, “That’s not what we’re about.”

Before the movie there were two trailers for Very Important Movies Starring Meryl Streep: Lions for Lambs and Rendition. I’m sure they’re going to be well-made. And I’m mostly sure that, in some sense, it’s important that they’re being made, that people are speaking up as best they can against injustice. But they still struck me as being insufferably self-important, dismissible as yet another case of liberal Hollywood poking its nose into politics. I liked that The Bourne Ultimatum dispensed with all of that, saying in effect, “it’s really not that complicated: People are important. Try not to kill them, or reduce them to simple ‘targets’ and ‘assets.'”