Friday, August 3, 2007

Bourne Ultimatum --

Saw it with Amy last night at a midnight showing. It was worth staying up for -- the first two Bourne movies were better than average spy fare, better than any but a couple of the Bonds, for example. (Casino Royale and From Russia With Love) --

Ultimatum may be the best serious action movie I've ever seen. (Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best action movie ever, but it's a featherweight piece with no serious intent behind it. Nothing wrong with that.)

Been an interesting trend in recent years -- the serious, no-apology blockbuster sequel. For most of Hollywood's existence sequels existed to suck the remaining dollars out of a franchise, and serious artists looked down on them. The people who made sequels didn't treat them with respect, and the results showed --

There've always been exceptions, but they're so few they stand out: what would have been Superman II, had Richard Donner been permitted to finish it. (See the Donner cut of Superman II, if you haven't -- it's much better than the Lester version.) The Empire Strikes Back. Aliens. Batman Returns. T2. And despite my distaste for the Roger Moore era, the entire Bond series was always treated with real seriousness by the people making it, though with varying results. And that's been about it -- I could easily name dozens (hundreds, maybe) of sequels that were much worse than the movies they referenced. Rambo might be the best example of a series that started out very promisingly, and degenerated into Something Awful with the first few seconds of the first sequel ... but there are dozens of examples.

But in the last several years there've been a lot of first-rate sequels -- movies no one had to apologize for. X-Men II is better than X-Men. Spiderman 2 is better than Spiderman. Casino Royale is superb.

But Ultimatum is the Godfather II of the action movie world, the movie that stands atop first rate work -- and then gets better. It's up there with Die Hard for sheer kinetic energy. There's a hand to hand combat scene midway through the movie that might be the best single fight I've ever seen in a movie. It reminded me, and this is high praise, of the fight in "From Russia With Love" -- two strong men trying to kill each other with their bare hands. Very few movie fights ever have any emotional impact past the visceral -- but this does. Ultimatum is The Passion of the Bourne, and the violence has an impact, on Bourne, on us watching, that far exceeds what most action movies ask of their audiences. And Bourne's quest for the truth, which in a second rate work would be a Maguffin with no impact, here has a payoff that has real moral weight.

I keep coming back to Casino Royale. I'm a big Bond fan, and Casino Royale was a great Bond movie. But it wasn't a great movie -- and Ultimatum is. Can't wait to go see it again.

21 comments:

Sean Fagan said...

Well, that's good to hear! I'd already been hearing good reviews of the movie, and it turns out (much to my surprise!) that I am a Matt Damon fan, so I'd been thinking about seeing it on Sunday morning. Now, it's a lot more likely.

I got the Donner cut of Superman II on BluRay; it's not the best movie for that, since some of the age shows. But I also ordered the first Bourne movie on BluRay, should get here soon... Gale hasn't seen any of them, so we'll see how she likes this one :).

Anonymous said...

Dan,

I'm curious what you think of the brief hand-to-hand in Gross Point Blank. I've always felt that was a stunningly well done and realistic portrayal of two highly trained assassins trying to kill each other, while the Bourne sequences are much more artificial (but still well done).

My one disappointment with these movies is that the first movie cut out the 30% or so of the plot that the book sequels hung themselves from. So, after the first movie omits any mention of Bourne's REAL origin and purpose, in favor of a generic "our government is up to no good" party line, the sequels have no way to tie back into the books.

Thomas said...

I've yet to see this movie, but I always recall the first major fight scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as my personal hallmark of excellent fighting.

The audience I saw it with, in Manhattan, erupted in applause when it finished, and the rest of the movie certainly didn't disappoint.

Anonymous said...

CTHD loses on realism points but was very impressively done at many points.

However, I've seen better martial arts fight sequences. Can't recall where at the moment.

Sean Fagan said...

For any nitpickers... the Bourne movies are out on HD-DVD, not BluRay.

I haven't thought about Grosse Point Blank in a while. That was an awful DVD transfer; pity, 'cause I really liked the movie. I agree about the fight between Cusack and Ayrkoyd.

Dan Moran said...

Haven't seen CTHD, can't comment.

The fight scene in Gross Point Blanke is first-rate, and it gets extra points for being stuck in the middle of a comedy and still coming off as a straight piece. It also has the advantage of being short -- I admit, I've never been in a fight to the death myself, but I've been in about 30 real fights in my life -- they don't go on that long. I suspect when 2 talented guys are trying to kill each other, someone dies pretty quick. The impressive thing about the Bourne fight is it does go on a bit and still feels plausible ...

The fight in GPB is between Cusack and the short blonde guy, not Cusack and Aykroyd.

Dan Moran said...

In the last couple weeks I've said that Die Hard and Raiders were the best action movies ever -- in my defense, I was thinking about different kinds of movies when I said that, so I'll weasel a little and say that Die Hard is the best realistic (if that word means much in context) action movie, and Raiders is the best fantasy action movie, and now I'll move on, like Bush on Valery Plame: I never got to the point where I wanted to talk about this, and now I'm past itt.

I do need to rewatch Die Hard now, having seen Ultimatum -- I suspect it's going to feel a little slow, after the Bourne matterial. Isn't that odd?

Sean Fagan said...

Ah... I think you mean the character Felix La PuBelle (he says, after checking the IMDb). He happened to be Cusack's kickboxing trainer, so they did have experience sparring :).

Ross said...

I agree about the fight scene in Ultimatum - it will go down as one of the best ever. Actually, the apartment fight in Identity has long been a favorite of mine as well - the only edge it has over this one is coherence - the camera gets a bit too shaky to full comprehend the entire fight in Ultimatum. But I loved the sheer brutality of this one. I can't tell you how many times I've said while watching a fight "keep attacking! He's still moving!" Neither Bourne nor his opponent need any such advice - they fight until one isn't moving anymore. I also like - mild spoiler - that it ends realistically - not with a neck snap, but with a choke, the way a fight between extremely lethal people probably would.

Also agree that the Grosse Point Blank fight is a great one - just rewatched it the other day, by chance.

And Dan, I agree that Die Hard is the best action movie ever. But the Bourne trilogy have to be the best spy movies ever, by a long shot.

Tom said...

you know, when i think 'spy movie' i always feel disappointed. Very few have ever captured the feeling of intrigue that playing on that level should bring. Spy Game, with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, comes closest (that i can think of off the top of my head) to what a real spy movie should be. I want my spys to be smarter than I am.

Anonymous mentioned it first, and I feel it's worth mentioning again, and even emphasizing a bit, the first movie kept most of the names, and the amnesia, maybe the beginning as well, but almost none of the main plot from the book. I kept expect Carlos to show up and he never did. I couldn't change my expectations fast enough to really get into the first movie.

that being said, I'm still gonna see this one, and I'll try and keep the charm school out of my thoughts. I think by now I've gotten used to the idea of the movies having very little relation to the books.

Reel Fanatic said...

It's great to hear that there's a threequel this summer that won't just suck .. well, that's kind of hard on "Shrek," which wasn't all that bad, but man did Spidey 3 and Pirates 3 suck!

Steve Perry said...

Movie fight scenes are, by their natures, doomed to be largely unrealistic. Real fights, especially those between real experts, just don't look impressive.

Like the scene in Lethal Weapon when Mel Gibson (as Riggs) draws a happy face on the target with his pistol -- not with that gun at that range, no way. But since shooters all wish they could do that, nobody bitches too much, it's a movie, after all, and fantasy.

The Grosse Point Blank scene -- that was Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, with Cusak -- was fun, but not really realistic, since it, and all movie scenes, are designed to be watched.

The knife stuff in The Hunted is interesting to watch, but the guys who staged it would have killed each other in the first ten seconds. Real duels are over fast.

Movie-fu is fun, but that's what it is, and you have to enjoy it like you would watching ballet ...

nathan kaiser said...

Just saw it this evening (Monday) and it rocked. My wife and I had a great time and walked away asking why other movies couldn't be this good... So, oh so many simply disappoint.

We are even hoping for a sequel (and quietly hoping there isn't so as to end on a high note).

Sean Fagan said...

I must be the lone, dissenting voice... I found the camera work distracting (and, a couple of times, almost nauseating). I didn't care for the dangled plot threads.

I liked the first two more.

tom said...

sean fagan,

I absolutely agree about the camera work. I've often wondered who thought the shaky handy cam was a great way to film a movie. And why no one told them that it was ridiculous. I can see using it for certain scenes, but with all the image stabilization technology we have, why on earth would you use the shaky cam for an entire movie?

That being said, aside from camera issues, I think this movie stands well above the first two. Despite all the rave reviews I went to the show with middling low expectations, and came away happy with my movie going experience. Something the first two failed to deliver.

Dan Moran said...

Tom -- why'd you go see a movie when you didn't like the first two?

I didn't go see the 3rd Pirates movie because #2 annoyed me -- life is short.

Steve -- yeah, I'll take your word on all of this. I doubt anyone reading this blog knows more about knife fighting than you do.

The Hunted was a flawed but interesting work. Between William Friedkin and Tommy Lee Jones my expectations may have been too high ...

tom said...

Dan,

Interesting question. I think my problems with the first two are more with my expectations than with the movies themselves. Had I seen them without having read the books, without constantly waiting for something from the books to happen, I think I would have enjoyed them. In the case of the third movie, instead of looking forward to Bourne confronting Carlos, I kept telling myself that this was a different story. A story unrelated to that of the books.

Anyway, long answer shortened, I'm a sucker for action movies. Even when I expect to be disappointed. Luckily, this time the movie turned out to be pretty good (actually, really good, but minus points for the camera work).

Thomas said...

I believe that the shaky camera throughout the whole movie was a mistake. I've gotten tired of working through "high pressure" situations with a shaky camera ever since they tried it in NYPD Blue.

Having said that, however, the shaky cam during the fight scene in the apartment was probably the most effective fight scene camera work I've ever seen.

When I was in high school, I took a 6 week course in stage fighting with foils. We had a 6 position attack, and a six position defense. Fights were completely choreographed, and as long as you remembered your stances, all you really had to do was recall a sequence of numbers. We practiced to make it look more believable by removing the hesitation on the part of the attacker, and the defender happening to know exactly where the next blow was going to fall. Once you had it down, you could do things like aim a long thin piece of metal at your friend's head and put some force behind it with a reasonable expectation of his safety.

That's the problem with watching fight scenes in movies: Without the right trainers, and without the right cinematographers, you can see through the choreography.

The best thing the shaky cam did for this fight was disguise the action as one fluid massively violent episode. I can imagine that it was filmed over a rather large period of time, with people stopping them and telling them that they weren't hitting each other just right, but the camera never let us see those breaks.

The genius of the fight, in my opinion, was the technique. As Dan said: These are two smart, tough, guys fighting each other, and this is how you would expect it to go down. Smart tough guys like these don't get very far by backing up, locking into a stance, and then motioning their opponent to come closer. Instead, you'd expect them to just keep...fighting.

joseph said...

How does the Casino Royal movie compare to the book? I have never read any Bond books, but have always wondered if they were very good.

Dan Moran said...

Joseph,

"Casino Royale" is the most faithful of all the Bond movies to the books -- a little better than "From Russia With Love," if I recall. Disclaimer, it's been 2 decades or more since I've read any of the Bond books -- but it's probably not an accident that the two best Bonds are also the two Bonds most faithful to the source material.

~~~~~

Saw Ultimatum for the second time, day before yesterday. No new observations, except -- that sequence starting with Bourne getting knocked to the ground by the explosion, and ending with the assassin's death? Ten minutes, end to end.

Might be the fastest ten minutes in the history of movies.

I watched "Dark City" late last night -- it had the record at one point for shortest ASL, average shot length -- about one cut every 1.8 seconds. I remember when I first watched it I thought it was awfully jumpy -- today it barely registers as anything unusual. I don't know what the Ultimatum ASL is, but I'd bet money it's lower than 1.8.

Atergoboy said...

Being ex-navy, I had some friends who were Navy Seals..and when they fight, they have one goal: to end it..fast. A fight between two trained spies/assassins would be over in a matter of seconds in the real world.

That wouldn't be very entertaining though, now would it?

As for other spy movies: all of the movies based on Ludlum's books (Bourne, Manchurian Candidate, etc) are far better than Bond or others. The only other ones that come close are Tom Clancy's works, and I don't know if I would consider them spy movies.