You have to hand it to J.J. Abrams and Paul Greengrass. In their mutual assault on film aesthetics—“remote-control filler,” as Armond White dubbed it—they have crafted several of the more efficient genre pictures of the last five years. Does it even matter that these movies don’t look like, well, movies? United 93 and Mission: Impossible III, with their TV pacing and choppy camerawork, thrilled our visceral senses—even if the collective effect was not unlike completing a level of Metal Gear Solid. As art, of course, they were bankrupt: United 93 added nothing to our understanding of 9/11 except to protract the dread of watching the twin towers fall into 111 carefully plotted minutes. Meanwhile, Abrams used Ethan Hunt’s family crisis to psyche out his trigger-happy audience (he’s dead—wait, he’s not dead), proving that there was little below the surface of his shiny contraptions. But man, it sure did look cool!
Greengrass’s latest, The Bourne Ultimatum, plops on the screen with lots of hi-fi energy but, strangely, very little feeling. In the hazy opening sequence, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) dispenses with a gallery of tough guys, though you’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what’s happening on-screen. The punches are quick, brutal, and relentless. In one memorable set piece, Bourne and another vacant-eyed secret agent rip each other apart inside a Tangiers apartment, stripping away the home’s décor as the shots literally shatter into tiny fragments. It may be the most breathless action sequence of the year, but, put together, the film’s stunts seem as empty as Bourne’s head—a globetrotting exercise in urban combat punctuated with control-room zingers like “Sir, he drove off the roof!”
You might say The Bourne Ultimatum recalls Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate by way of a Doug Liman acid trip—except Greengrass doesn’t have the wit or insight of either. A series of disjointed flashbacks reveals a top-secret military training program that set Bourne on his journey as anonymous killing machine. The audience watches in horror as interrogators dunk Matt Damon’s head into a water tank. Greengrass toys with Abu Ghraib imagery—his faux-documentary aesthetic affects political posture (call it CNN chic)—but the technique distracts where it should enlighten. Bourne finds his way to the end of the puzzle, but the satisfaction isn’t redemptive—just clever. If the film’s glowing early reviews are any indication, what Greengrass lacks in soul he more than makes up for in artifice.