In his review, Roger Ebert mentioned ‘seemingly long takes’, and talked about how the movie kept the viewer on top of the action, following the chase sequences seamlessly, and easily. In reality, Bourne Ultimatum uses the same visual technique as its predecessor, Bourne Supremacy. For any given sequence, the action is broken down into series of very short takes, that are edited together to create an illusion of uninterrupted action. This is a powerful trick, but it’s not for everyone. Some people reacted badly to quick cuts – sometimes by vomiting and losing balance on their seats – but that wouldn’t be a good way to advertise a movie, would it? It’s so good it will make you puke. Why did the filmmakers choose this tactic?
Perhaps the reason for this technique is in the movie’s plot. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) plays an amnesiac super-spy. His experiences can bring on a feeling of deja-vu, or leave him disoriented. He follows leads, sometimes into traps, and sometimes to the very people who have been helping him. Bourne’s universe is as complex as a spy world can get. By quick jumping from angle to angle, the editors passed that uneasy, panicky feeling to the audiences. Some loved it, some had their stomachs protesting. Ebert didn’t even notice the cuts, and ‘perceived’ the entire scenes as one take. You decide for yourself, whether this forceful immersion worked. I felt disoriented at first. The movie picks up exactly where the previous one left off, so you have only a few seconds to catch up on the plot, the location, the threats to Jason, and his motivations. If you can’t catch up, you’ll have to wait until the opening credits that start fading in and out five minutes later. Even the credits don’t roll. They quickly fade, and you have to think back – who was that actor, does this look like a familiar face or name?
Sure, call it a gimmick, and call the editors hacks. Many shots are way to quick to even register. Many shots are blurry. But isn’t it the whole point – Jason is looking for his identity. He knows he’s got a real name, possibly a real life outside this spy business. His contacts are peaceful cafe visitors one day, and cold corpses a few hours later. His whereabouts are as random as you can imagine – just throw a handful of tacks at the world map, and you’ll get Jason’s itinerary for the next week. He doesn’t know where he is, and most definitely doesn’t have an idea where he’s going next. He picks up clues (i.e. corpses, newspaper headlines, burnt documents), and follows these clues almost blindly, like a character in a linear role-playing-game. Except this is anything but linear.
Pamela Lundy (Joan Allen) is back as the CIA director who’s trying to help Jason bring his memories back (without damaging the very organization that MAY have helped to create and train him). Naturally, she’s surrounded by a few people who guard CIA secrets, and happen to have a bit more clout than Pamela. They need to find and eliminate Jason for exactly the same reason – that he might find out his identity. Naturally, spy games ensue within CIA buildings as well. It’s a lot of fun to see a spy break into ‘unbreakable’ headquarters. It’s much more fun to observe people inside the very same headquarters play spy games between their cubicles, often aimed at each other. ‘The Good Sheppard’ had a lot of these ‘code’ messages and ‘perfect timing’ scenes. ‘Bourne Ultimatum’ continues to build on these amazing sequences, creating tension in simple phone conversations, or safe-opening hand gestures.
That is not to say the movie lacks action scenes. There are two car chases, a breath-taking rooftop chase, a quick run through Manhattan streetscape, and at least a few smaller sequences in London and (I think Paris, or Madrid) underground metro mazes. Again, the quick takes can be a little disorienting at first (it’s reported the movie’s average scene length is just 4 seconds), but it can be so effective. You’re there, with Jason, following his action, and ALMOST experiencing the same blurry visions.
The ‘Bourne’ books were clearly a product of cold war, originally published in early 80s by Robert Ludlum. The movie trilogy built on the first book, and pretty much re-wrote the other two. Obviously, the names, the organizations have changed. The world politics are different. But it’s amazing just how fresh, how urgent these films are today, even though the source material is so old. A credit to screenwriters for taking such a potent, but dated character, and being able to easily integrate him into the post 9/11 world. Both Bourne and Bond characters have been loaded with a lot of cool new gadgets in the latest movies. I find Bourne more believable, and his familiarity with gadgets more realistic.
I also think that in this summer of threequels and sequels, Bourne Ultimatum stands out as the strongest of its trilogy, and the most compelling. Nothing is watered down here, no wasted frame. He’s a spy , he’s looking for his identity, and he’s going from contact to contact trying to find out how he was created, and by whom. It’s a lean, smart film that works on many levels, gives you plenty of amazing characters, and of course, amazing action sequences. Check it out today.