If The Bourne Ultimatum were to slow down, the viewer would suddenly realize how many coincidences and leaps of logic are required to keep the story moving forward and check right the fuck out – which is to say it’s no different than such classic hard-chargers as North by Northwest or Raiders of the Lost Ark. And this is what it takes to get a good, rip-roaring spy yarn over nowadays; slacken the pace just a little, and all of the dullards in the audience will stockpile the inconsistencies as evidence that the filmmakers have somehow failed the viewer. If logic, as Hitchcock once said, is boring, then "internal logic" (a term misused almost as often as it is invoked) is the hobgoblin of dull minds; so long as Roger O. Thornhill doesn’t produce an umbrella and Mary Poppins his way off Mount Rushmore, there is no reason to complain about the unreality of Ernest Lehman’s narrative.
For whatever reason, modern moviegoers find it difficult to suspend disbelief (unless the fantastical is clearly invoked); they want the rules of drama to conform to reality – a notion antithetical to the purpose of the form (if one accepts Aristotle as any kind of authority). This doesn’t excuse bad plotting of the "Oh, my god, I’m colorblind and therefore ineligible to join the Air Force!" variety ("And here’s your Oscar, Mr. Arndt!"); impeccable structure is meaningless if the writer has to insult the audience to keep his house of cards from collapsing. But the storyteller does require some leeway, and if the viewer is unwilling to grant it, they might as well save themselves some money and, frankly, watch or read nothing, because truth is as elusive in nonfiction as it is in the made-up wholesale stuff.
And, so, speed will out. But to what end? Can narrative move any faster and still be coherent? Consider this, then, a preemptive plea prompted by a burgeoning fear that filmmakers will mistake propulsion for proficiency and appropriate the Bourne formula in the hope that unrelenting suspense is somehow the product of incessant travel. (Budget is no longer a concern, as resourceful producers could set up shop in one former Soviet Bloc country and exploit its versatile European-ness all day long, confident in the knowledge that most Americans lack the worldliness to tell Paris from Bucharest.) And because they are not Paul Greengrass, they will fail.
Actually, Paul Greengrass wasn’t Paul Greengrass until United 93. Before then, he was a docudrama filmmaker struggling to adapt his improvisational aesthetic to the more structured realm of classical storytelling – i.e. if one wants to designate a one-picture learning curve as "struggling". For all of its second-unit thrills and relentless pacing, The Bourne Supremacy was a formative work; it was Greengrass learning to stage and cut hand-to-hand combat, figuring out his editing rhythms and understanding how a movie star can carry a movie – all of this without betraying his established docudrama style. That’s quite a trick, too. Many interesting foreign and independent filmmakers will, upon arriving in Hollywood, abandon everything that made them special in the first place; but Greengrass is determined to preserve his integrity while selectively capitulating to the demands of the American marketplace. How to give them what they want, while also giving them what they can’t get anywhere else?
Seeing was the trouble with The Bourne Supremacy. Visually, it was an erratically told story. But Greengrass conquered whatever it was that confounded him on that picture in United 93 (as pure and original a piece of cinema as the medium has seen in the last decade), and he has applied this expertise to The Bourne Ultimatum, which concludes the robo-spy saga more gratifyingly than could’ve ever been expected. No movie has ever moved like this. But its hyper-adrenalized intensity is no mere gimmick; more than escape, more than revenge, Jason Bourne has craved memory. He needs to know who made him a perfect killing machine, and why/if he consented to it in the first place. With these answers finally within reach, of course Bourne will kick it into overdrive.
But Bourne’s real name could be "George Kaplan" for all the audience cares; it’s the frenzied search and the evading of Blackbriar (the reconstituted Treadstone) agents that justifies the price of admission. How Bourne sets foot in as many as six countries this time out is, again, a question for the dull of mind; if one is willing to buy him precisely guiding an investigative reporter (Paddy Considine) through every nook and cranny and crowd cluster of a bustling Waterloo Station so as to elude a sniper’s scope (the movie’s elegantly orchestrated high point, smudged with the Hapgood fingerprints of uncredited script polisher Tom Stoppard), then Bourne’s busy itinerary shouldn’t be a problem. As long as the protagonist is obeying the laws of physics when he’s on camera, Greengrass is playing fair.
Unlike Supremacy, Ultimatum‘s momentum doesn’t flag when the camera goes off of Bourne, which is attributable to Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy receiving a formidable sparring partner in David Strathairn’s Noah Voss (the nefarious Blackbriar head tasked with eliminating the Agency’s Bourne problem). The Bourne movies have never lacked for thespian talent, but Greengrass and his writers clearly recognize the potential for fireworks between these two, and, wisely, give them the requisite space to set ‘em off. While Allen is excellent as usual, Strathairn’s presence is key; his stature and searching, intelligent eyes imbue Voss with a lethal weight the character might’ve otherwise lacked. For once, here’s an intelligence hack who could catch and liquidate Bourne.
If Ultimatum has a weakness, it’s the scope of its story: national security isn’t at risk; the answer to Bourne’s questions aren’t likely to illuminate some grander conspiracy that "goes all the way to the top". But that’s part of what’s refreshing about these movies. Bourne is wreaking outward havoc to delve deeper inward. He is sickened by his murderous expertise, but will kill anyone who tries to further the obfuscation of his identity. And what’s at the end of this journey? Does Bourne want someone to blame? Can he live with that someone being himself? It’s a superspy existential crisis – one that can’t be solved by leaping off a rooftop! But don’t be surprised when Bourne reverts to this coping mechanism anyway. For a man who’s even more of a machine than he was in the prior installments, it’s an attractive option. There’s plenty of room to move forward in the abyss.