Remember Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? The best thing about that movie (aside from the monkey brains) was the simple elegance of the plot. Indy’s in trouble, and every time he escapes, he finds himself in even more trouble — a cliffhanger blown up to feature-length. The Bourne series has extended a similar premise into three films: a man gets chased while he’s trying to find out who he is. Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum is the leanest and most exciting of the series yet, a chase movie of breathtaking purity.
We all know the nightmarish premise from our dreams — what it feels like to be Jason Bourne, perpetually running. Sure, he can take out a dozen goons in hand-to-hand combat, fool the spooks at Langley and drive a totaled NYPD cruiser through crosstown traffic backwards, but he only displays a sum total of three character traits. No wonder everyman Matt Damon is perfect for the role — anybody can project themselves onto this bland cypher (and I mean that in a good way.) Motivation and character are boiled down to bare bones; the film begins mid-chase, dispenses with opening credits altogether, and even if the action slows down for a moment of shaky respite, the pseudo-documentary camera never stops bopping and weaving.
That pseudo-documentary camera is controlled by director Paul Greengrass, whose exceptional talent lies in relaying complicated second-by-second events, often in disparate places and connected through an array of high-tech gadgets, with precision and an eerie sense of reality. At his best — like in a bravura sequence in Waterloo Station — Greengrass can make you feel omnipresent. I admired the technique in the historical reenactment Bloody Sunday but found it disconcertingly out of place in the gratuitous United 93. In the Bourne films, we get to enjoy the filmmaker’s prodigious skills without any of the baggage. The thriller is his natural home, and The Bourne Ultimatum is a thriller stripped to its essence.
Madrid, London, Tangiers and New York City are the settings for the film’s setpieces, and Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Scott Glenn, and Joan Allen co-star. As usual, great local talent supplements the cast, including Paddy Considine and Daniel Brühl (Goodbye Lenin), who has a short scene as Franka Potente‘s brother. Among the film’s highlights are an almost unbearably intimate hand-to-hand fight to the death that ends in stunned silence and makes the “seriousness” of Casino Royale look sentimental. Speaking of Bond: The Bourne Ultimatum shows just how slack and self-satisfied the much-praised Casino Royale really was. Bond has the glossier locations, juicier women and flashier cars, but in a fight, Bourne would slit 007’s throat and make off with the suitcase nuke before Bond had time to put down his martini.
The Bourne Ultimatum. Paul Greengrass, 2007. ****
An exciting action-adventure before the backdrop of the African diamond trade. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a South African rogue who smuggles weapons for rocks, Jennifer Connelly is the earnest journalist who falls for him, and upstanding father Djimon Hounsou struggles to reunite his family in the Sierra Leone civil war. Don’t expect to learn more than the most basic bullet points about child soldiers and the bloody reality behind your engagement ring, but the 143 minute running time flies by.
Blood Diamond. Edward Zwick, 2006. ***
Fox Searchlight somewhat helpfully included a defective DVD of the first movie with their schwag bag for Day Watch (along with small size t-shirts and an astronaut sew-on patch for Sunshine). Skippy or not, Night Watch was difficult to sit through. I expected more of Timur Bekmambetov’s flashy Matrix-in-Moscow stylings, but this first movie of the trilogy is a lot darker and duller than its sequel. Vampires, swirling clouds of crows, ancient battles, youngsters who face fateful choices and other stock fantasy elements meet in a Russian setting, but Night Watch has a first-act feel to: things are set up but nothing generates much heat. Day Watch is a significantly more exciting movie, but I doubt it would have made any more sense if I’d seen them in order.
Nochnoy dozor. Timur Bekmambetov, 2004. *
I suppose it’s not considered in particularly good taste to watch school children killing each other off for entertainment, but the dexterity with which director Kinji Fukasaku milks the “murderous game” concept for drama and satire is remarkable.
The setup could be described as Mean Girls with machine guns crossed with Lord of the Flies by the way of the Schwarzenegger trash classic Running Man: in future Japan, a class of forty students is selected to fight to the death on a secluded island. Everybody is given a random weapon and kept under control with exploding necklaces. Like Highlander, there can be only one survivor. Multi-talented Takeshi Kitano combines his game show host and actor personalities in his role as the former teacher who cruelly oversees the fight.
Once the “game” is established, Battle Royale excels in using overly familiar high school scenarios and reimagining them with deadly weapons. Here are the popular girls, for whom the cut-throat competition to be the #1 princess just got a lot nastier. Here are the geeks who stick together and hatch a plan, the lovebirds who try to find their own way out, the freshly transfered students hiding secrets, the boys with the tragic crush on the wrong girl.
We get to know a good many of the forty quickly diminishing students, and most of them could have jumped right out of a sitcom — but the stakes here are cranked up so high that what usually would have been an ordinary schoolyard confrontation becomes a matter of life and bloody death. Even more so than last year’s Brick, Battle Royale is terrifically engaging because it literalizes what everybody already knows: high school is murder.
Batoru rowaiaru. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000. ****
The hype machine is in high gear, but for once there’s truth in advertising. As far as megabudget superhero adaptations go, Spider-Man 3 delivers exactly what it promises: more of the same. If you liked the first two installments, this is great news. Unlike the self-important Batman Begins, the Spider-Man movies know exactly what they are and what they want to be.
Again, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco engage in cheeseball humor and soapy storylines illustrating bromides like “everybody needs help sometimes.” As before, Sam Raimi’s crisp direction makes elaborate three-dimensional action set pieces as transparent as a few well-chosen comics panels would. Again, the bright color scheme, the iconic NYC locations, the funny bit players (J.K. Simmons and Mageina Tovah as Ursula), the swooping score, and the gee-whiz wholesomeness that leaves no doubt that this poppy entertainment is squarely aimed at kids.
There are three new villains: Franco turns into the hoverboard-surfing New Goblin, Sideways‘ Thomas Hayden Church becomes the Sandman (who, by film’s end, looks like the Trash Heap from Fraggle Rock), and Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, who is covered with alien goo as Venom, the most wicked of the Spidey villains. Their tag-team battles are the most exciting of the series so far.
Peter Parker also undergoes some transformations. As a deft metaphor externalizing his anger and aggression, the alien symbiote colors Spidey’s costume black, and he ends up with a hipper haircut and a mean new attitude: the dweeb struts to a James Brown tune and turns into a sexual predator (or at least a dweeb’s idea of a sexual predator.) In mythic terms, the symbiote represents the Devil of the Tarot deck, but by the end of the movie, the Sun of forgiveness comes up over Manhattan. There’s room for plenty of sequels.
Spider-Man 3. Sam Raimi, 2007. ***