by GEOFF GEIB
It is a little disappointing that the third installment of the excellent Bourne trilogy is the epitome of the style vs. substance debate. I think I hear the candidates in the background. Let’s listen in.
SUBSTANCE: “Would it kill you to even contemplate character development? Does logic and consistency mean nothing to you? My opponent fails to realize his callous disregard of the true nature of film’s power -plot, character, dramatic structure – are his undoing. Yes his films are pleasing to the eye, but they cannot hold up to the test of time.”
STYLE: “My antiquated and obsolete opponent does not understand the evolution of the medium. I am able to move past the classic stricture of film and create a visceral assault on the senses. I contend it is you, Substance, that are lacking in dramatic weight. Not I.
SUBSTANCE: “You’re an idiot.”
STYLE: “Blow me infinity.”
And so on. The Bourne Identity was the perfect meld of style and substance, with a sharp, intelligent script coupled with excellent action and a lot of shaky camera movement. The second and third installments in the franchise, directed by Paul Greengrass (whose Bloody Sunday is a powerful example of style as substance) exceed the first film time and again with extended virtuoso action sequences including the finest car chases since Ronin, but consistently fail to adequately develop the story or the supporting characters sufficiently. We’re left with very entertaining, dare I say it, pulse-poundingly entertaining films, but whose inner life contains less of the richness and depth of the original.
None of the fault lies with Damon, who is the good guy version of Michael Myers, an unstoppable force that hides in the closet of the CIA. Woe is villain David Strathairn, a favorite actor perhaps most recognizable from such fine John Sayles work as Limbo and Eight Men Out, who is sadly given little to work with here. Damon inhabits the one character in the film who does not need intricate character development, for it is his job to react. His relentless pursuit of that most slippery of concepts, the truth, is what drives the film, and believe me, the film drives hard.
Greengrass employs a dizzying array of nearly non-stop camera movements and slick editing to create a feeling of intense discombobulation and tension – I inevitably felt excited or disoriented, and sometimes both, and one imagines that combat and flight might in fact feel very much like what is being shown on the screen. Damon is so good, and the movie presented with such skill, that the few flaws are easily forgiven.
The movie weakens only with the presence of the supporting characters who are painfully one dimensional and behave quite foolishly, for no other purpose than pushing the plot forward. In the most egregious example, Julia Stiles reprises her role from the earlier films in what can only be assumed an attempt by the filmmakers to humanize Bourne and/or send him to yet another exotic locale. Her character, which was so thoroughly destroyed in as rich and devastating a moment as the movies has to offer in The Bourne Supremacy, returns here to contradict her previous behavior. I never like it when sequels feel the need to rewrite their own history, a clear example of the franchise having run out of ideas.
This, I must say, is nitpicking, for the film works beautifully as an action film, and it is hard to remember a movie that proceeds in such relentless fashion from beginning to end. In the great debate, style has closed the gap, but substance is still closer to the finish line.