February 06, 2008

Spring into Action

Bullitt, 1968
directed by Peter Yates

The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007
directed by Paul Greengrass

For some reason, when the weather starts to warm up as it's doing now in my neck of the woods now, I get a yen to watch action movies. The first two I watched this year were an old favorite and a new effort, and I thought it might be fun to write about both of them together here...

Bullitt is part of the received history of San Francisco in pop culture (like Streets, which I wrote about before), and proof to those of us growing up there that it was an important place where exciting things happened. Narcissistic, yes. The movie certainly revels in its location - lots of outdoor scenes, ambient sound, etc., concentrating on quirky details of architecture and geography.

The plot is run-of-the-mill, but the pacing is tight. The French New Wave influence is obvious - open space in the dialogue, long takes with short bursts of action, a certain amount of stillness in the acting styles, focus on quotidian details amidst the "big plot" elements. By the standards of something like Bourne Ulitmatum, the action scenes and chase scenes are dreadfully slow, but for me they pack a more visceral wallop because of that. This is a movie made in an era when someone (well, a male someone, I suppose) watching was more likely to know what it felt like to take a punch or drive off into a ditch. The filmmaking relies on that a little, I think, in a way more recent movies can't.

The Bourne Ultimatum is likewise a product of its time. Thank goodness we've moved somewhat beyond the 1980s blockbuster action-movie explosion porn of Schwartzenegger, Stallone, and Seagal, who all came across more like cartoons that human beings on screen. I really think that one of the reasons the Bourne movies have worked is that Matt Damon has that baby face, and maintains a confused look throughout, even (and especially) when he's throwing bad guys at each other. He looks like he's out of his depth and just doing the best he can with his special skills under the circumstances - amazing how far just that facial expression can carry the movies.

It goes without saying that the first movie of the three was the best - after all, it was a romance gussied up as an action movie. But I'm talking about Ultimatum here, and its main feature is that the editors worked overtime on it. It's the pop-film equivalent of music by Brian Ferneyough - ridiculously intricate in detail, extremely overwrought, with intensity that never wanes. There's just enough plot to hang some emotions on, so you know why people are shooting at each other, but mostly this is one set-piece after another, beautifully run together.

Oddly, I puzzle over the casting David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Albert Finney. They are visibly trying to bring texture and profundity to their characters, and good on them I suppose, but I can't help but wonder if the movie would have been better served by moustache-twirling cardboard cut-outs instead. This is one way that the movie is like one by the Three S's I mentioned above - our hero is pretty much a blank slate with a limited moral compass, while the bad guys have complex subtle motives (well, comparitively). If this isn't a microcosm of America in the world today, I don't know what is.

Matt Damon has the potential to become an action-movie "actor" yet - he came close in The Departed, I thought. Meanwhile, Steve McQueen is the epitome of that kind of screen presence for me. In Bullitt, we get large doses of slice-of-life (watching him buy groceries, for crying out loud, and not played for laughs!) that would be out of place in a Bourne movie, and there's a continuity of character from the domestic to the police-procedural which isn't found in your typical Hollywood action movie of recent vintage.

These were fun movies to watch in close proximity to each other once, but I don't think I'll do that again any time soon. Much better when taken separately.

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