There is a fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, which I saw last night, that forced me to alter certain preconceived notions I had about the “proper way” to film a fight. It occurs at the end of a lengthy and incredibly tense three-way chase scene, where the hero Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) pursues a CIA “asset” — a trained hit man named Desh (Joey Ansah) with skills comparable to Bourne himself — who is tracking his target, Nicky (Julia Stiles) as she weaves her way through tightly stacked buildings in a crowded neighborhood in Tangier. The chase culminates when all three meet in a tiny apartment, and Bourne and Desh throw down.
I have two pet peeves when it comes to filming fight scenes. One is when the director restricts everything to tight close-ups of the combatants’ faces, so that you see nothing of the fight itself, just the characters’ reactions to whatever is happening. That’s just cheating. This is not a problem from which the Bourne films have ever really suffered, but in this particular scene the location presented certain obstacles that made tight framing a necessity.
My other issue is when the scene is edited using a mind-boggling array of fast cuts. I understand the intention here, which is to create a sense of disorientation. This rarely works, however, as it makes me stop watching the movie. I just wait for the scene to end so they can tell me who won. This scene involves two professional killers trained in hand-to-hand combat and at the heights of their respective games. The actors are in fantastic shape, and they move unbelievably fast. Combined with the confined space, this is a set up for one frustrating fight scene. Against the odds, though, Ultimatum pulls it off.
This fight sprawls through two rooms, but neither of them are big enough to fit the three characters involved comfortably. As a result the camera is forced in close, but director Paul Greengrass employs a handheld style that relies more on moving the camera quickly to whatever point is most important. It feels frantic, but Greengrass is careful to ensure that the audience sees something specific in each shot rather than just a blur of frenzied motion. There are quite a few fast cuts, and the actors move so fast that most of the choreography is a blur. A few salient points shine through, however. In particular the brief use of a book as a weapon got a visceral response from the audience, and in the second stage of the fight the appearance of a straight razor and a towel ramped up the tension nicely.
There was no music whatsoever during this fight. The only sounds were the labored grunts of the combatants, the impact of fist on flesh, and the occasional crash of broken furniture.
Here’s the thing: The tight location, the speed of the actors, the careful camera work and the intimate sound design all combined to create a fight scene where the audience flinched out of concern that they themselves might get hit with a stray left hook. This sort of chaos often takes an audience out of a scene because they stop watching the movie and start wondering about the actors’ safety. Ultimatum managed to avoid this pitfall, instead creating a fight that enhances the characters, forwards the plot, and raises the stakes of the overall story.
The end of the scene served to underscore what makes Jason Bourne stand out in the sea of American action heroes. The nature of his struggle is such that for every fight he wins, he loses another part of himself. Everyone who has followed his story since the first film knows that “Jason Bourne” is not this man’s original identity. “Bourne” is a cold-blooded killer, a man whom the hero has come to abhor. But with each death Bourne claims a little more of the hero, and Matt Damon is fascinating to watch as he portrays this internal struggle.