By Sarah Churchwell, a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia (THE GUARDIAN, 20/08/07):
I went to see The Bourne Ultimatum intending to write a piece comparing the three films and the books by Robert Ludlum that inspired them. Ludlum’s Bourne is a Vietnam veteran whose adversarial relationship with government turns into an ultimately idealised collaboration with a CIA manned by upright true-blue Americans. The films, by contrast, register a profound suspicion of government – in this latest instalment, the CIA is the only enemy – that seems to be about America’s doubts regarding Iraq.
I haven’t changed my mind, but the film left me with a far more pressing question: why can’t women in action movies ever do anything useful? The most amazing thing Julia Stiles does in The Bourne Ultimatum is get second billing. She has approximately three scenes, in which her character runs the gamut from concerned to worried. In Stiles’s one big scene she walks hurriedly from an assassin in a crowded Moroccan bazaar, repeatedly glancing back so the killer gets plenty of good looks at her worried face. Never does she do anything in self-defence: grab a scarf or a makeshift wig to cover up her distinctively coloured hair, create a diversion by setting something on fire, invent a story to convince a stranger to help her – and why doesn’t she speak every language on earth, like male CIA agents? All she does is rattle locked doors, until she finds an open one and runs up the stairs. Now that’s ingenuity.
The ensuing fight is, naturally, between Matt Damon and the hitman. At last, the script permits Stiles to act, instead of just looking on helplessly, and her effort is somewhat gratifying, although, predictably, ineffectual. She does nothing else of practical utility, except bring Damon a washcloth.
There are female action heroes these days. In TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess and now Heroes, and movies such as Catwoman, Elektra and the Matrix films, women kick some ass. But these are all science-fiction fantasies: they take place in imaginary worlds, and several of them were notable flops. The rule seems to be that the more “realistic” an action film, the more hapless the women. The men can outwit entire government agencies, fight off 43 assailants at once, emerge from spectacular car crashes unscathed, and survive 10-storey drops into the East river (merely what Bourne does in Ultimatum). The women mainly stand around looking anxious. Joan Allen, who plays a CIA boss in all three films, has a slightly less thankless task; her character makes some intelligent decisions, but she isn’t exactly stirring.
The films are about Bourne, granted. I don’t expect her to have equal screen time, but Stiles might be granted one constructive skill. The character of Marie, Bourne’s love interest (whom the second film killed off), exemplifies the downward trend: in 1980, the year the first book was published, Marie actively contributes as an expert economist who rescues Jason once or twice, and even makes them rich; by 2007 and the third film, she’s dead, and her replacement is utterly nugatory.
In real life, as I discovered to my chagrin the one time I was in grave physical danger, I wave my hands in front of my chest like the hens in Chicken Run. But I like my fantasies to be made of sterner stuff. Moreover, I’m reasonably confident that if I were a CIA agent, especially one who had tangled with someone like Jason Bourne in my previous film, I would have learned a couple of exotic languages, and acquainted myself with some martial arts. My job doesn’t really call for self-defence – except, of course, when you admit that you have read a lot of Robert Ludlum. I’d better go find me a wig, and a safe house in Morocco.