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Friday, 17 August 2007

A Bourne Is Star

Eyewear thinks The Bourne Ultimatum - the third film in the Bourne series - starring Matt Damon and Julia Stiles, and directed in its last two-thirds by Paul Greengrass - may be the best "action film" ever made. Director of the first, Doug Liman, also deserves much praise, though, for establishing the initial frenetic pacing and energy of the series.

Lights, Camera, Action! - that familiar rallying cry of helmers everywhere - has always begged the question - what is Action? We know (or think we do) what cameras and lights are.

Film is, despite other definitions, the visual record of bodies moving through space and time, as caught and then again projected by light. As such, it is one of the purest art forms, if made endlessly complex by intervening elements, from market forces, to authorship, to mise-en-scene, to narrative demands made on what is, at its truest, a more beautiful and visual thing than mere story can provide (hence the usual metaphors allying film and poetry).

Movies are motion - are action. As one critic recently noted about the Bourne trilogy (may it multiply further) it has become abstract - the filmic equivalent of an American Action Painting. Jason Bourne is a new, more violent agent of modernity - a Jackson Pollock for the American Age.

Wags may have noted that Jason Bourne shares the same initials as James Bond. There comparisons end. The Bond films - except for the first three or four - have been stylish pastiches, send-ups, and semi-spoofs - lots of fun and often uber-sexy, with fascinating references to geo-politics - but never great cinema. The Bourne films have, almost from the first frame of the first film, excelled and stunned with a nearly new visual flair - almost a new language - for how action can be expressed through camera and character.

It helps that these "abstract" films are grounded in a genre (the paranoid spy thriller) that has enough codes and conventions to allow a looser sketching stand-in for deep story. The genre goes back far - one of the first was Lang's Spione. The 39 Steps is the basic structure - a man on the run from the authorities is simultaneously chasing the truth, and a greater conspiracy ranged against him, with the help of (at least one) attractive female. The Bourne films also add elements from The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, Telefon, The Conversation and other great 70s films. It has always been a highly philosophical film series (the first movie features the Parisian self-defenestration of an agent in a sly reference to the suicide of French theorist Deleuze) and exemplifies the process of the filmic, as much as anything else - but if pressed to have a theme, it might be Foucault's version of the panopticon.

The Bourne Ultimatum, of course, projects such a panopticon onto American hard power, as CIA rogue officers are able to tap into every camera in the world at the touch of a button (echoing and accentuating the terrifying implications of such mass observation recently best shown in the superb Cannes winning Scotland-set nail-biter Red Road directed by great new auteur Andrea Arnold).

Anyway, back to the Bourne series. It features four or five set piece action sequences (one in Waterloo wherein I commute to teach creative writing, and it is actually usually more crowded than onscreen) that are as thrilling as any in film history. At the heart of the movie, though, is a ten-minute sequence set on the roof-tops of Tangier, and below, in the narrow byways of its markets and alleys, that defies my desire to express congratulations. This moment in cinema outdoes any previous attempt by a film artist to capture the sheer kinetic suspense and danger inherent in a love triangle, using the trope of targeted assassination and violent, last-second rescue (the basic core recipe of all Women In Peril films, from the first Chick-on-the-Track).

Julia Stiles has passed her mobile phone on to the "asset" - in this case the handsome, silent hit man, who is deviated to kill her (shooting the messenger, post-modernly) - while Damon races to get to her first - entailing more bone-grinding leaps, near-misses, and best-guesses than heretofore thought possible. This sequence is as exciting, romantic and tense as anything I have ever seen. It is great adrenaline cinema. Bergman and others often tell the truth with stillness and close-ups. Now The Bourne films, by using an ultra-fragmented, hyper-kinetic, and madly driven process, have told another, equal truth - existence moves, too, fast.
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