The Bourne Ultimatum isn’t just the best action movie of the summer, it’s one of the best movies of the year. And it’s a movie that stands up and loudly disproves a lot of long-held assumptions that we all have: that an action film has to be stupid, that a third film in a trilogy tends to disappoint, that a movie can’t thrill while also giving you something bigger to chew on.
Most of Ultimatum takes place in between the end of the Moscow scenes in Supremacy and the beginning of the New York tag at the end of that film. The film explodes right from the start and continues propulsively along for its whole running time; The Bourne Ultimatum rarely takes a moment to catch its breath, and it never takes time for filler or extraneous crap no one cares about. This movie is like a shark, sleekly and constantly moving forward, and with some big ass teeth.
After apologizing to the daughter of his first victim, Bourne begins to experience flashbacks to his earliest days in the Treadstone project, when he was still a soldier named David Webb being inducted into the shadowy world of black ops. He flashes back to a creepy doctor, to water boarding, to a demand for committal to the program. It’s Jason Bourne as Weapon X, but there’s a major difference between Damon’s amnesiac assassin and Marvel Comic’s victimized mutant. More on that in a spoiler protected paragraph below.
Meanwhile, a British journalist has begun uncovering secrets about Bourne and Treadstone. He’s Bourne’s next stop, leading to a bravura game of cat and mouse in London’s packed Victoria Station. It’s the sort of action scene that director Paul Greengrass specializes in – chaotic, tense, and filled with reversals. Bourne is trying to keep the reporter (played by the wonderful Paddy Considine) from not only on the ground government agents infiltrating the crowd but also closed circuit cameras; watching Bourne be one step ahead of everyone is the thrill of these films, and that’s what this scene is all about.
More action scenes follow as Bourne’s journey takes him inexorably to New York and the truth. In Tangiers Bourne gets into an extended chase and fight with a fellow Treadstone (now known as Blackbriar) killer, and the ensuing fist fight is one of the most thrilling bits of hand to hand combat I’ve seen in years. Critics of Supremacy complained about the way Greengrass shot and edited his fight scenes; in Ultimatum the style is the same but much more assured. If you’re vehemently against the quick cuts and jostling camera, you’ll still have a problem with Ultimatum, but if you’re open to the style, you’ll see that Greengrass keeps the visceral excitement of that style while letting us more into the fight. It’s long, it’s brutal, and it’s just fucking great. When the fight is finally over it’s a spontaneous applause moment.
While Bourne forges ahead with his international mission, the folks at CIA are scrambling. David Strathairn runs Blackbriar, and Joan Allen’s character is tasked to help him find Bourne before he can find them. If the film has weak spots, these are them; working without a script as Greengrass and company did doesn’t hurt the action scenes, which were often constructed on the spot, using the local environment as a vital element, but for talkier, idea-driven scenes it can be killer. Thankfully, Strathairn and Allen are consummate pros, and while some of the scenes are clunky – especially as they argue back and forth about how to deal with Bourne – they rescue them, while bringing depth to characters who would have in any other movie been cardboard thin.
Also strong in a supporting role is Julia Stiles. By the third film her continued involvement in Bourne’s story is a touch ridiculous, but the film doesn’t dwell on such things, and integrates her so perfectly and so quickly that you don’t have time to question it. And once she’s in the story, Greengrass and screenwriters Tony Gilroy, Scott Z Burns and George Nolfi keep her from being a cliché; as the film wraps up Bourne and his quest, Stiles’ character’s resolution may be the most satisfying.
But the whole film is about Matt Damon. Some people complain about his dead stare, but to me that’s the look of laser focus. Bourne’s not a superman, but he’s close – he’s going to be able to look at any situation and figure out all the angles in seconds. He’s a hero who is much, much smarter than the audience, but Damon manages to play out his thought processes clearly on his wide face. There are not a lot of action heroes who can get you just as excited when he has an idea as when he’s busting heads, but thanks to Damon, Bourne is that character. It’s pretty amazing that Damon has come to own this role so thoroughly – back in the Good Will Hunting days the idea of Matt Damon as one of our best and most effective action stars would have been patently ludicrous. And yet here he is, launching his compact body into a third dose of unstoppable action and never for a second losing control of the screen and the audience. Damon has had tougher acting roles, but technically Bourne must be his biggest challenge ; he’s constantly walking a tightrope between keeping this extraordinarily interior character at a proper cool distance while letting us in on his thoughts and feelings without saying a word.
The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum are blueprints for modern action films. In their own way they rival The French Connection for their impact on cinematic action – there’s no doubt that Casino Royale wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Paul Greengrass’ first entry in this franchise. When Greengrass took on the Bourne task he was technically a newcomer; undeniably gifted and a master storyteller, he had never tackled this sort of film, which is what made it all the more amazing when he blew it out of the water. After the experience of Supremacy Greengrass is an old hand, and he comes back completely assured and knowing just what he wants to do. Ultimatum is a major leap forward for him, and while his action scenes are still pure exhilarating chaos (seemingly. They’re expertly choreographed and shot to seem like chaos), this time they’re filtered as opposed to the raw torrent of kinetics that left some befuddled in Supremacy. It isn’t that Greengrass has met his critics halfway, it’s that he’s just gotten so goddamned good at this.
Spoilers follow. Beware!
By the time Bourne gets to New York and engages in an epic car smash-em-up (not as amazing as the chase in Supremacy, but twice as destructive. Michael Bay will look on with envy), the final answers are on the horizon. I found myself concerned that like so many movies these days Ultimatum would drop the ball in the final reels, but much like he did in Supremacy, Greengrass and his writers twist your expectations at the last second. Where the second film found him on a single-minded quest to apologize, Ultimatum finds him faced with an unpleasant truth: nobody forced him to become Jason Bourne. Unlike X-Men’s Wolverine, Jason Bourne wasn’t created through brainwashing or force; in a chilling scene that echoes brutality being meted out by American hands in Iraq, the man who was David Webb makes his final conscious decision to become Jason Bourne by shooting a bound, hooded man whose crimes are unnamed. It’s a great gutpunch of a moment, and it sums up why these films are so much better than any other action series – these aren’t a series of fantasy characters making black and white decisions but real people, often doing what they think is right but is incredibly morally murky.
Technically the film is left open for a sequel, but I hope that Universal leaves well enough alone. They have a near perfect trilogy of action, morals and character on their hands, and it would be a shame to sully it with a cash in fourth film. The story of Jason Bourne wraps up in this movie, and it does so with unexpected grace and satisfaction.
But hopefully this isn’t the end of the story of Paul Greengrass as an action director. While I want to see him get into current events with Imperial Life in the Emerald City, I also want to see him come back and deliver another thrill ride. It’s amazing to think that this guy could go from the heart shattering United 93 to the ass shattering Bourne Ultimatum, but that’s a testament to his impressive talent. And I get the impression he’s just getting started.
Go see The Bourne Ultimatum. If you’re like me, see it two or three times, because this movie is the antidote to bloated, stupid threequels and mindless junk food cinema.