Review of The Bourne Ultimatum and Bourne vs. Bond

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) 8/10
Amnesiac superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is on a quest to uncover the CIA secrets that will help him understand who he is. Meanwhile CIA agents including Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), Pam Landy (Joan Allen) and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) are trying to find him.

The Bourne Ultimatum is a satisfying and thrilling action movie experience. It plays to most of Bourne’s familiar strengths: Grittiness, intelligence, and a smart anticipation of the enemy’s next move. Bourne is a behaviorally-modified agent, and so any skill he needs, he has, whether speaking Russian or Spanish, or knowing how to create diversions, or performing insanely good high-speed stunt driving. The film is weak in character development; at the breakneck pace it maintains from beginning to end, there is barely time for exposition, let alone exploration of individuals. The strong cast compensates a lot for that weakness; looking at Strathairn, I could tell that he’d done a lot of character work on Noah Vosen. Although the guy is just there to read the right lines, somehow he was fully embodied, and I was sure that Strathairn knew what Vosen had for breakfast, how he treated his wife, and what his dog’s name was.

I saw Damon on The Daily Show saying that the only bad review he saw was one that said “Someone should give Paul Greengrass a steadi-cam.” I have to say I agree. I love the veracity of the quick-moving camera, and certainly in a film that has spies spying on spies it makes sense for the camera itself to give the impression of spying. But so much of the movement was dizzying and hard to follow, that I felt a few conventional shots would have been welcome. One fight scene in particular was a blur; and clearly, it was a blur on purpose, as a directorial decision. Nonetheless, I kind of had to squint to watch it.

Bourne vs. Bond is practically a national pastime lately, but I have to say, I don’t see it. At least, I don’t see the part where people are saying that Bond “has to compete” with Bourne, or that Casino Royale “imitates” Bourne. Puh-leeze. Bourne wouldn’t exist without Bond, and Bond’s grittiness comes straight from Fleming‘s pen. I think it’s true that both Bourne and Daniel Craig‘s grittier Bond are a product of our times; movie audiences respond more to darker, edgier heroes. Craig’s Bond is similar to Timothy Dalton‘s, but the 1980s audience wasn’t as responsive (and would not have embraced Bourne either, I think).

I also don’t think Bourne is more realistic; gritty is not the same as true-to-life. A brainwashed superspy is, indeed, science fiction, and the stunts that Bourne performs are as outrageous as parachuting off a cliff while on skis. There are distinct character differences, of course; Bond’s on the inside, and has the support of his government, which includes gadgetry and the ability to move in fancier circles. As a thinker, Bourne is a chess player, anticipating move after move after move, while Bond is a poker player, getting into his enemy’s head while he bluffs and challenges.

The Bourne Ultimatum is a good movie but not an amazing one. It’s a roller-coaster ride that is, to me, less satisfying than its predecessors, which did so well at including people in the equation.

(Cross-posted at Property of a Lady)

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