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Some Ramblings - The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

Looking at the final result, the direction certainly would had held his breath for the longest period before summoning his birth-right to yell CUT, till that breaking point, when he thought that the action could on continue on any longer, without the actors seriously injuring themselves. As the cars careen down the busy roads of bustling New York rush hour morning traffic at speeds, reserved specifically to race-car drivers, and people with suicidal tendencies, the camera dutifully plays the part of the curious gawker, who could not turn his eyes away from the inevitable crash. And yet the moment never arrives. Near misses, close calls and lucky moves push the envelope further and further down the path of the glorious doom. William Friedkin's "The French Connection" set a standard in the industry for car chases. It relies so much on the artistry of the stunt personnel involved in the proceedings, so much so that a razor-edge, wafer-thin move in the wrong direction, would certainly had resulted in great loss of property and lives of everyone, even remotely connected to the shoot, like a passer-by, who had the misfortune of cross paths with a motor vehicle, moving at illegal speeds. Yet, in retrospect, the director seems to be unfazed by the challenge at hand, and instead allowed the action to continue on, with least amount of cuts, in long continuous takes. The 20 or so minute sequence that spans chases foot flight, trains and automobiles leans heavily so much on the precise timing and sublime skill of the stuntmen, and moves as far away as possible, from optical illusions and editing smoke and mirrors techniques. What happens on the screen was what transpired during the shoot. Friedkin realized that the only way to shoot a car chase and make it as interesting and as adrenaline pumping as possible, is to get into a car and shoot the chase from close quarters - nothing more, nothing less. The key ingredient to a believable stunt sequence is realism.

Panic and paranoia are two faces of the same coin, with one instigating the other and the other feeding off the first. The inability to comprehend the nature of the events coupled with the impending danger, provides the right platform for an explosive situation. Add a little volatility to the moment, the subsequent action would pretty much write itself and all it needs is a little camera to follow around to catch the action. Before CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) became synonymous to action in Hollywood, there existed an interesting period, particularly during the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, during the 70s, when action equated to realism. The more realistic an action sequence is, the greater is its effect. Though the rule still applies even to this day and age, the directors' penchant (or fetish, in case of likes like Michael Bay) for creating most of the action in post-production offices on computers and editing tables, takes away the rough edge of those sequences, making them look flat, unemotional and sometimes, even cartoonish, like the recent Die Hard 4, Transformers, and their brethren. Back in 70s, a great many movies understood this symbiotic relationship, and the results were stuff legends were made of - The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Blow Out, The Conversation, French Connection and other such great movies defined, how action plays out in real situations, as danger always lurks in the near corner, ready to pounce upon at the slightest opporunity or provocation, whichever comes first, and the camera is only a few feet behind, to catch all the action firsthand.

Take the case of The Godfather - Michael has just caught his brother-in-law Carlos red-handed, in the murder plot of his brother Sonny, and yet he lets him off the cook, and banishes him to Vegas, far from his family in New York. As Carlos gets into the car front-seat, he is greeted by Clemenza, Michael's right hand, sitting in the back-seat, happy to escort Carlos to the airport. What happens in the next couple of minutes is as brutal as it could get. A sharp wire comes over Carlos' throat, as Clemeza tugs the wire hard cutting a paranoid Carlos' hand, caught between the wire and the throat deeply in the process. Blood gushes out his hand as the wire continues to cut through the hand, digging deep in to bone, and through the throat. Carlos struggles to gasp for breath, as he launches himself into the air, and starts kicking the front pane of the car's window hard. The shot reverses to the outside of the car now. The foot (boot) continues to kick the window harder and harder, causing the break-away glass to fly in all directions, as Carlos slowly slumps into his seat and dies a ghastly and a horrible death - with a cut hand and a slit throat. Talk about realism and the sequence is straight out of real life police FIRs and coroner's reports, and the effect is one of great shock and pure fright.

"Battle of Algiers" remains a very important movie that spurned the success of the near realistic, documentary style, Verité (Latin, verity = truth) style of film-making, where the fine lines between realism and reality are smudged and each is made to look like the other, without much effort. This French movie, made in 1966, is still considered the bible for staging action sequences. The movie is about the French occupation of the African country of Algeria, and the subsequent rebellion that eventually drove out the French forces. Shot in a then unique documentary style, it breaks down the trusted barrier between the audience and the action, placing the audience right in the midst of marketplace explosions, suicide bombings, hit and run guerrilla warfares of the rebels. Hollywood (and the rest of the world) embraced this style with open arms during the following years of the 60s and the 70s and the result was a glut of near-realistic action movies, that employed less of gimmickry and lots of guts. Though the style is all but extinct, thanks to the phenomenal rise of the (computer) machines, green screens, blue screens, wire-work etc, where the final product on the screen is no where close, to what happened in front of the camera during the shoot, an occasional surprise from the other side of the Atlantic, sprung up once in a while to show that there are still fervent followers of the guy who made "Battle of Algiers", 40 years ago. Surprisingly, lack of great budgets seem to motivate these makers to go back to the basics and retool their designs, so that the same disadvantage could work to the benefit of the movie. And out of that necessity for simplicity was borne, 5 years ago, Jason Bourne on the other side of the ocean.

Right from the first one in the series, The Bourne Identity, to the one in question, The Bourne Ultimatum, the travails of the amnesiac assassin Bourne, are depicted in a matter of fact way. As the series progressed, the camera switched gears from over-drive to hyper-drive as the motion became more and more kinetic. If Bourne has to jump from one rooftop to another, and in an extremely thrilling maneuver, from a rooftop directly into a window of building right in front, the camera just follows up like a faithful companion (even if it has to make the same jump from the rooftop into the window using the same wire-work suited up to the SteadiCam operator), without ever leaving his side. Pacing is the principal element that is greatly played with, in this final installment of the series. All the extraneous fat, like expositions, character developments, in some cases, even dialogue, is done away with and the result is a lean, mean, fast-talking, fast-moving, motion picture, just like Bourne. Paul Greengrass, the director, who also helmed the previous edition, seems to have honed his craft of story telling, keeping the action in tight frames - close-ups and medium shots, moving the camera at the same frenetic pace as his subject. Though Bourne Supremacy was a little jerky for its own comfort, Greengrass' subsequent venture, United 93, which was a documentary style retelling of the heroic efforts of the fateful passengers of the flight on the morning of 9/11, struck the right balance between camera movement and close action in tight spaces. The resulting action is not so much as the violence as it a ballet (of bullets and blood). The interesting discovery that panic and paranoia get progressively worse as space around the subject starts shrinking and starts closing in, is the chief reason why the series has worked so greatly, setting its action pieces in crowded public areas, small office spaces, and other close confines.

The series ends on the same note it had started on, a few years ago, with Bourne presumed dead in a large body of water, rising like a Phoenix to his glory. Funny, how the same applies to the style of film-making.

More Ramblings on films
The Simpsons Movie
The Grindhouse
Casino Royale
The Departed
Lage Raho Munnabhai
Superman Returns
The Da Vinci Code
Sri Ramadasu
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Jai Chiranjeeva!
Munich (English)
Sarkar (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Kaadhal (Tamil)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Radha Gopalam
Mughal E Azam
Virumandi (Tamil)
Lakshya (Hindi)
Yuva (Hindi)
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Nuvve Nuvve

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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