Before Fred Astaire became a star, it was normal for movie dance sequences to be shot in bits and pieces, with the camera moving around from feet to face, and intermixing other scenes, all to hide the fact that the dancer could not dance. Fred put an end to that. He insisted that all of his dance scenes be filmed in one continuous long shot so that audiences could see that it really was his dancing, from beginning to end. Fred set a standard for dance filming that continued all the way until 1983’s Flashdance, when the camera once again took over for incompetent “dancing” stars, and allowed for dancing body doubles. That movie’s popularity notwithstanding, it’s “cheat” approach to dance filming may explain why there haven’t been any popular dance films since then.
I kept thinking of that as I watched Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum, which is the first Bourne movie I’ve seen. I knew going in that the plot would be irredemably silly — which it was, with more holes than a Swiss cheese — but I’d been promised by those who knew that it would be a wonderful action flick. And I do love action movies.
What I quickly discovered, though, was that the only action hero was the camera. For all that I’ve heard the movie described as one in which Matt Damon is in perpetual motion, what you quickly discover is that it’s the camera that never stops movie. When Bourne races over rooftops, you just see his head bobbing up and down. When he’s in a fist fight, you get close shots of his sweating face, with a few flashes of unknown fists cutting in and out periodically. Even the car chase scenes were done using such a close-up, fast moving camera technique it was impossible to tell what was going on. (The French Connection, Beverly Hills Cop and Dirty Harry movie teams are probably rolling around in anguish at how degraded the car chase has become.)
I came away with the strong impression that Matt Damon cannot move well. This meant that the film maker’s primary goal was to obscure that fact — a particularly problematic fact for an action/adventure movie. I also figured out that the guys who choreograph car chases weren’t so up on their job either, again placing the burden on the increasingly over worked camera crew.
End result: a lazy, unsatisfying movie, with a stupid plot, nauseatingly frenetic camera work, and no quality action scenes.
My recommendation if you want good action scenes is the ridiculous Kung Fu Hustle, which has some of the most glorious martial art fight scenes I’ve seen in a long time. The director makes no secret about using camera magic, but the fights are still wonderful and exhilarating. Another movie which had marvelous fight scenes and car chases, although I didn’t much like it, was Casino Royale. I found Daniel Craig an unappealing Bond and the plot was both silly and charmless (whereas old Bond movies were silly, but charming), but I have to say that Craig moved. The action scenes were vivid and exciting. And for car chases, of course, check out the movies I mentioned a few paragraphs above.