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Retrospective: The Films Of Paul Greengrass

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 9, 2013 at 12:28PM

“I really do believe, with a great, great passion, in the possibility of really good films being made at scale and in the mainstream,” Paul Greengrass said to Empire, rather ironically on the occasion of the release of his least financially successful Hollywood film, 2010’s “Green Zone.” But it outlines what seems the guiding principle of Greengrass’ work, that there is a way to make intelligent, politically relevant, “grown-up” films that appeal to a mass market.
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The Bourne Ultimatum Matt Damon

"The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007)
The third entry in the 'Bourne' saga (and the second directed by Greengrass) is ultimately probably the weakest of the franchise but it still features some of the very best moments in the series. "The Bourne Ultimatum" is ultimately more of the same, with Matt Damon's amnesiac secret agent still struggling to come to terms with his past (and make things right in his present). The movie's wafer-thin narrative, which was cobbled together while in production (with work by expert cobblers Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), definitely contributes to the overall feeling of déjà vu. The nearly cubist sense of kinetic action cinema that Greengrass established in "The Bourne Supremacy" continues here, except without the surprise and in a marketplace already cluttered with imitators. Sometimes, like during a scene of dialogue between Bourne and the brother of his murdered girlfriend (played by Daniel Bruhl), the camera fidgets for no apparent reason, shaking around the actors' faces like a nervous bumblebee, something that brings the entire enterprise dangerously close to self-parody. Not that you have time to even register this while watching "The Bourne Ultimatum;" the film's biggest asset is how quickly it moves. It's just that this time, some of the international cross cutting and blurry flashbacks feel like the series treading water instead of actual forward momentum. 

But then there are those unforgettable set pieces, like an early foot chase in London's Waterloo train station where Bourne has to remote-control a nervous newspaper reporter played by Paddy Considine, not to mention the climactic car chase in New York City, a dazzling bit of action cinema made all the more compelling by the tactile nature of Greengrass' cinematography and editing (you practically want to brush the broken glass off of your face when it's over). There's also one of the very best human moments in the whole franchise, which is when Bourne sees off his reluctant accomplice (played by Julia Stiles), after she's had to change her identity after nearly being killed. "It gets easier," he says in quiet resignation, about the life she now has to lead. It's a beautiful little beat that demonstrates Greengrass' ability to find truthful character beats in amongst the high-stakes action. But while the director gives the movie his all, you can still feel a certain creative restlessness; it's apparent that he has come to the end of his time with the 'Bourne' franchise and wants to get out of there. For the next few years, Universal would try to woo the filmmaker back to fold, but he remained steadfast, and while rumours of his involvement with 'Bourne 5' swirled as recently as a few months ago, Greengrass was as quick as ever to quash them. [B]

United 93

"United 93" (2005)
Less than five years after the events of September 11th, Paul Greengrass wanted to document one of its key stories. And the response was more or less outrage. At the time few could believe that the guy (a British guy at that) who had made "The Bourne Supremacy" would be taking on 9/11, especially when the events were still so fresh in peoples' minds (supposedly a New York area theater removed the trailer from rotation after audience members complained). But then, of course, when people finally saw the film, they were blown away, with critics embracing the picture and Greengrass snagging his one and only Best Director Oscar nomination to date. Greengrass' approach was deceptively simple: he cast mostly unknown character actors in most of the major roles and gave many of the roles to non-actors who were just doing their jobs (flight attendants acting like flight attendants, for example). The script was based loosely around transcriptions from the actual event but filled out through elaborate rehearsals. Greengrass even tried to stage the action in as close to "real time" as possible, with the film's 110 minutes tied closely to the length of the doomed airplane's flight, from takeoff to crash. And while the film's title had to be changed from "Flight 93" to "United 93" to avoid confusion with a television movie that was airing around the same time, this ended up being a brilliant swap: the "United" of the title doesn't just refer to the airline, but to the mentality of those on the plane, who made a decision to try and stop something they knew was far bigger than themselves. 

And it's that incredible humanity that Greengrass captures, but with spartan writing and direction; his documentary-style camera pinballs around the airplane, refusing to indulge in forced sentimentality or soaring moments of heroism. Yes, what they did on that airplane was amazing, but Greengrass doggedly refuses to trumpet the event as anything other than ordinary people coming together to do the right thing ( extraordinary as it is). And it's this pared-down simplicity that makes "United 93" even more heartbreaking. As a filmmaker, Greengrass is at his best when he makes the human drama as compelling as the suspense or action set pieces he crafts and this is a prime example of that, one in which characters are developed through action more than dialogue and emotions exist naturally instead of being artificially forced. "United 93" remains the best theatrical film released about 9/11 and one of the finest accomplishments in Greengrass' career. [A]

Bourne Supremacy

The Bourne Supremacy” (2004)
It’s easy to forget that the Bourne franchise was anything but a surefire success at its inception. Indeed, it was anything but a franchise initially, with the first film, “The Bourne Identity,” featuring a director and a star both unproven in the area of action, and being based off a seemingly defunct Robert Ludlum series that had been filmed before. And it was such a self-contained story that even Matt Damon, at the time, felt the character was unlikely to be resurrected. So while all kudos have to go to Doug Liman, Damon and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the series’ godfather, in many ways) for rustling up the surprise smash of "The Bourne Identity," to Greengrass (and Gilroy again, of course) have to go a lot of the laurels for making Bourne a viable continuing property. “The Bourne Supremacy,” to which he was attached after Liman dropped out (citing friction with Gilroy that would ironically also bedevil Greengrass) it was something of a leap of faith, as Greengrass had never handled anything of this size and scope. But he hit it out of the park, establishing not just a hugely lucrative franchise, but arguably consolidating and refining a camera-as-part-of-the-action style that had never really been employed on a tentpole before. 

‘Supremacy’ in fact, may be held up as a kind of sequel gold standard in what it achieves: it expands the universe of the first film and establishes an aesthetic so recognisable that when “Casino Royale” breathed new life into the Bond franchise, it was widely regarded as having done so by liberally borrowing certain elements from its younger spy-movie brother. It’s not overstating it to say that in imbuing the action sequences with that in-the-moment feel, Greengrass found a whole new way to make Hollywood action movies. And this is all the more impressive because, in purely story terms, ‘Supremacy’ is pretty weak, with the kinetic, breathless filmmaking not just distracting us, but somehow making us not really care, that the plot makes very little sense. Bourne, living in peace in Goa with his girlfriend Marie, is dragged back into the spy life by wily old Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) who wants to both frame him for a crime that will cover up his own misdeeds, and to kill him (because that proved so successful the last time). Really the idea that Abbott couldn’t find any better patsy than the unkillable superspy who had bested him so often before is quite daft and we--oh wait! Brutal car chase! Gritty Berlin locales! Bourne using a rolled-up magazine as a weapon! The flash and dazzle of Greengrass’ breathless, sometimes disorienting but undeniably exciting shooting style covers a multitude of narrative sins, and strong performances across the board, especially from Damon as the taciturn Bourne who here doesn’t even have a girl-Friday foil to humanize him, make the whole into a kind of irresistible package. [B+]

This article is related to: Features, Feature, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon, Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips, Green Zone, Tony Gilroy


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