A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

Rank: # 25

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM jjj
½ 

2007, PG-13, 116 mins.

Jason Bourne: Matt Damon / Nicky Parsons: Julia Stiles / Noah Vosen: David Strathairn / Ezra Kramer: Scott Glenn / Dr. Hirsch: Albert Finney / Pamela Landy: Joan Allen

Directed by Paul Greengrass /  Written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi /  Based on the novels by Robert Ludlum

If one is willing to excuse some of THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM’s logical shortcomings (like a hero that seems to defy death on too many occasions and a secret CIA base of operations that seems far, far too easily breached by the same hero), then it works stupendously as an exercise in relentlessly paced action and tension. 

The film – the third in the Jason Bourne trilogy of films, and in turn ever-so-loosely based on the best selling novels by Robert Ludlum – will be fondly remembered by me as the best of the series and a spy thriller of virtuoso action set pieces and adrenaline-pumping intensity.  THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM is like a feverous and tenacious beast of a film that is tightly woven, lean, mean, and has a forward momentum that hurtles by with an unstoppable aggressiveness.  Leaving the theater I felt tired and winded, like I was actually with Bourne on his search for his pre-amnesia identity.   

That experienced sensation is a compliment, not a criticism, because ULTIMATUM never once – not even during its “slower” moments – allows for the viewers to stop and collect themselves.  Very rarely has an action film created such an ethereal, in-the-moment resonance.  Films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN gave you a same sense of haunting immediacy with its grunt POV of war combat and I think that what ULTIMATUM does is kind of the same; it makes you feel as you are with Bourne, side-by-side, breath for breath, as he runs, jumps, punches, kicks, and drives his way through his enemies in search of the truth.  You don’t simply passively and complacently watch the endlessly thrilling action in this film; rather, the action kind of pummels you over the head with its veracity and breakneck velocity.  As an assault on the senses, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM is a masterstroke work in the genre.   

This should not come of any surprise.  The Jason Bourne films – which started with the decent THE BOURNE IDENTITY in 2002 and followed by the superior BOURNE SUPREMACY in 2004 – have always existed as wonderfully conceived spy thrillers that stood well apart from the pact.  The first film, directed very competently by Doug Liman, introduced us to Bourne as an amnesiac killing machine that was created by a secret cover faction of the CIA.  That film placed an intriguing twist on the genre by making the main antagonist of Bourne...himself.  He is an unmitigated force of lightning violence, but he can’t remember why or how he became so.  This simple and effective hook became the sort of MacGuffin that launched the whole series of films.  He escaped capture at the end of IDENTITY and things got even more personal when – through a series of complicated events – the life of his lover was taken.  Even worse was the fact that he was framed for a political murder that he did not commit. 

For my money, THE BOURNE IDENTITY was a solid and efficient spy thriller, but I found myself enjoying SUPREMACY even more, especially after re-watching them both back-to-back in preparation for ULTIMATUM.  In terms of overall story, SUPREMACY was a basic revenge thriller and political who-dunnit that did not really explore the damaged psyche of Bourne more fully.  Yet, I appreciated it more the second time around for its action and marveled at the thankless job Matt Damon did in presenting Bourne not so much as a ruthlessly strong and dexterous superman, but more as an emotionally damaged man of introverted aggressiveness and unhinged focus.  One of my initial complaints of SUPREMACY was in the shooting style of its action pieces, which kind of were expressionistic by focusing on energy and mood, not flow and symmetry.  They were done with such a loose, free-flowing, cinema vérité style that I initially thought they were utterly distracting.  Upon a second viewing – and coupled with seeing ULTIMATUM – I now think that it ultimately works because of the way it fosters such a visceral feeling in the viewer.  It kind of has the realism of a documentary at times. 

To an even larger extent, the same can be held true for ULTIMATUM, which was also helmed by SUPREMACY’s director, Paul Greengrass.  The director’s last film, UNITED 93 – the best film of 2006, if not one of the finest of our current decade – showed the limitless talent and confidence that Greengrass had over edgy and difficult material.  ULTIMATUM is decidedly less of a controversial and relatable piece of film making than UNITED 93, but Greengrass’ impeccable and oftentimes unmatched sense of pacing is on display here in full force.  The real star of ULTIMATUM is Greengrass, who showcases his command over staging masterful action and creating palpable tension.  His style here is nearly flawless in execution; there is not an ounce of fat on this film - at 116 minutes, nothing extraneous is left.  It’s staggeringly efficient with its headlong swiftness and full-throttle vigor.   ULTIMATUM, along with SUPREMACY,  seems like that highly infrequent crossing of mainstream action milieu with the stylistic trappings of an art house film and Greengrass never falters once in the way he handles everything with such a calculating deftness.   

However stylish and evocative the direction of the film is, the other selling point of ULTIMATUM is Damon himself, who arguably has carved himself out one of the better action hero performances of recent memory.  As with all of the Bourne films, Damon does a exemplary job of not playing Bourne larger than life (which could have been a temptation with a lesser actor) and instead plays him with a subtle, buried level of teeth-clenched intensity and bravado.  The actor himself is often overlooked for what he does in these films when he’s not involved in large-scale stunt and action sequences.  It is his low-key and minimalist style that makes Damon such a compelling actor, and he plays his super spy with remarkable abilities as down-to earth as possible, making us relate to him more, despite his almost otherworldly ability to cheat death at any given moment. 

ULTIMATUM essentially takes place shortly after the events of the last film and Bourne once again is a wanted man by most levels of the US Government, but is able to miraculously stay one step ahead of them at any given time.  Of course, the singular intrigue that these films create is our willingness to root on Bourne in his quest to discover who he is and how he actually came to be a figure that could easily win a fistfight against John Rambo.  It’s a never-ending cat and mouse game between the Feds and Bourne: he wants to find out why they want him dead and discover his lost identity and the Feds want him dead because he is proof of the government’s top secret, off the books, black ops section of the CIA that does all types of illegal actions, like assassinating those they don’t wish to have alive anymore.   

At the beginning of the film he thinks he has found the break he has been looking for in the form of a reporter (Paddy Considine), who may have a source that could lead Bourne to the Intel he needs.  When that lead goes horribly wrong, the intrepid spy with memory loss ends up going on a worldwide trek through London, Tangier, Moscow, Madrid, Paris, Turin, and finally back to his New York.   The CIA seems to have insurmountable surveillance gadgetry and the latest computer devices to catch Bourne, but his wits outmatch their hardware.  The department’s black ops head, Noah Vosen (the always stern and dependable David Strathairn), has a clear purpose of finding and killing Bourne.  Agency director Erza Krammer (Scott Glenn, decent in a small, but crucial, role) also does not want to see Bourne come home alive.  At least Bourne has some allies in the form of Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who risks their careers in the end to help Bourne recapture his past.   

It's safe to say that some of ULTIMATUM’S story speeds by with a bit of routine predictability.  The instant we meet Krammer and Vosen we know the two will be an uncaring thorn in Bourne side, not to mention that Landy and Parsons will be allies in his cause.  Also, it’s safe to assume that Bourne will also rigidly evade capture at any given moment when it appears that this secret CIA group has enough intelligence capabilities to capture a dozen bin Ladens.   

Yet, this film is not about the verisimilitude of its underlining story, but with its overall tone and implementation of its fearsome stunts and action pieces.  There are many in the film that are real showstoppers.  An early sequence that shows Bourne trying to assist the news reporter from escaping assassination in a train station is kind of brilliant in its build-up and payoff, as is a later scene, which builds to a moment of comeuppance for Bourne against the CIA (which, as stated, does not speak highly for their own security).  Probably the best sequence in the film is a daring and ruthlessly thrilling foot chase that involves Bourne, Parsons, and a pursuer through the streets, balconies, and rooftops of Tangiers, which eventually culminates in a spectacularly choreographed fight that makes you kind of gasp alongside the combatants.  No doubt, when the action kicks into gear, ULTIMATUM is an almost insurmountable force.  The film is not triumphant because of its narrative finesse, but solely because of its pummeling, mind-altering stunts and action.  Sure, a lot of them may be as outlandish and silly as those seen involving John McClane, but under the watchful and remarkably confident eye of Greengrass, ULTIMATUM reaches a staunch level of gritty, primitive realism that the last few DIE HARD films wished they had. 

Watching this third film in the Jason Bourne trilogy – with its savvy, roller coaster pacing and bruise knuckled-action – left me feeling utterly fatigued.  However, as an action film to be actively experienced, this is one of the unequivocal best in awhile.  It left me – like a drug addict wanting another fix – desperately yearning for more, which is more than I can say for the summer’s other lackluster and unfulfilling sequels, like SPIDER-MAN 3, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX.  ULTIMATUM is not only one of the best summer action films, but also one of the best three-quels of recent memory.  There is, however, a more-than-slight hint that Mr. Bourne will survive this film outing and return again to the silver screen.  Something tells me that he will be back to make this film series a Bourne Quadrilogy.  That’s why ULTIMATUM is a rather atypical third entry in a series, one that is clearly better tailored and made than the two previous ones that preceded it.  It also does not compel you to pray for the series’ quick end; it makes you actually root for more. 

In Bourne’s case, here’s hoping. 

 

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