The Bourne Ultimatum / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | August 4, 2007 | Comments ()
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, or reveal too much about the film, so I’ll just lead with this: The Bourne Ultimatum kicks. ass. For the many of us who don’t geek out over comic-book flicks (Spider-Man 3) or big-screen cartoons (The Simpsons Movie), salivate over empty nostalgic monstrosities (even decent ones like Transformers), hope against hope that a sequel will live up to its predecessors (Live Free or Die Hard, Pirates of the Caribbean) or yearn futilely to conjure up the magic of a novel (Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix) in cinematic form, there is only one true blockbuster this season that fits the bill. And unlike the others, which I’d argue all failed to varying degrees, The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t disappoint. It’s not only what you expect, but what you want: A pint-sized shit-kicking machine that delivers the goods and thinks before he shit-kicks. And, unbelievably, there’s just as much joy in watching that thought process work as there is in the carnage it unleashes. Better still: The Bourne Ultimatum is the antithesis to big, bloated action spectacles. This is not a swollen and distended trailer bursting at the navel with a snazzy marketing title, like Bourne on the Fourth of July or Bourne Free ; it’s an honest to God action flick with enough adrenaline coursing through it to burst the capillaries in your eyeballs.
Much of that success can be attributed to Paul Greengrass, who took over after Identity, with the slightly weaker Supremacy, but improved significantly upon even the original here. Greengrass somehow reinvents the novelty of Jason Bourne, and with the experience of United 93 under his belt, his documentary-style handheld camera work is less machine-gun and more economical, more focused, and even more riveting, giving Ultimatum a pubic-hair ripping intensity. There’s not a second spared — each scene, each movement is geared toward moving the action and the story along. Greengrass seems to proudly wear a sandwich board that loudly exclaims: “Real Directors Don’t Play Footsie with the Storyline.” No sir. They infuse the action into the story, instead of building the plot around action sequences. There are no anthemic catchphrases or interrupted “Yippee Ki Yay, Mother Kabloeys” here. Greengrass doesn’t have time for that bullshit — it’d get in the way of the propulsive momentum of his film.
And what better way to create a reductionistic action flick than to cast David Strathairn as your lead villain? You don’t get any more mild-mannered, “Just the facts, ma’am,” than Strathairn (playing against type), who can burst your veins like frozen water pipes with a single cold stare. Sure, Joan Allen (who returns here) and Chris Cooper were great as the agents tracking down Bourne in the first two installments, but Strathairn in villain form (as Noah Vosen) would sooner break your neck than waste a sentence on you. Indeed, in the opening minutes of the film, when Vosen first appears onscreen — stepping out of his car and walking into CIA headquarters — the hair on your arm will stand at attention; and when he initially espies our title hero on a surveillance cam at London’s Waterloo train station efficiently taking out his men and announces, “Jesus Christ. That’s Jason Bourne,” either your nether regions will tingle or, unbeknownst to you, the first few frenetic action sequences reached out and snapped your spine at the waist while you were drooling in your popcorn.
The film’s action begins in Moscow, where Supremacy ended, brilliantly bookended for the most part by Supremacy’s epilogue, in which Allen’s CIA Agent Pamela Landee reveals her sympathy for Bourne by telling him that his real name is David Webb. Vosen here is in charge of blatantly unconstitutional Blackbriar program, the super-duper secret operation that replaced the merely super-secret Treadstone, the botched operation responsible for Bourne’s amnesic state.
A Guardian reporter (Paddy Considine[!]) with a high-placed CIA source stumbles upon the Blackbriar program, which makes him the target of not only Bourne but Vosen. Bourne and the reporter meet in that London train station and things get hairy real motherfucking quick when Vosen — who has kill authority under the Rumsfeldian program — takes out the reporter and just misses Bourne, setting up a cat-and-rogue-mouse chase to find that high-level CIA source who not only has the power to take down Blackbriar, but also has the answers to Bourne’s origins, specifically the man initially responsible for Treadstone, the Mengelian Dr. Hirsch (played by Albert Finney, which may cause some temporary confusion to those like me who think all old, fat white guys look the same and briefly mistake him for Supremacy’s Brian Cox). Bourne’s sole motive here is encapsulated in one of the few full sentences he utters: “Someone started this, and I’m going find them.” And you bet your ass he will.
Landee, deftly portrayed by the always solid Allen, is sort of caught in the middle between her allegiances to the CIA, her own sense of ethics, and her disgust for the Blackbriar program. Nicki Parsons (Julia Stiles), who hovered around in the background at a desk idly speed-typing for most of the first two installments, finally plays a bigger role in Ultimatum, though her appearance doesn’t flow that naturally from Supremacy. She comes to Bourne’s aid somewhat arbitrarily, subtly hinting that the two of them had some sort of relationship when Bourne was still Webb. She eventually alienates even herself from the CIA, making her a target of Vosen, which sets the stage for one of the most mind-meltingly awesome motorcycle chase scenes you’ll ever witness on film. And though she only provides the impetus for the scene, for that alone, Stiles finally validates her existence as an actress.
As for Matt Damon: He continues do what it takes to create the perfect utilitarian action-hero: Stoic. Resolute. Bad Ass. John Stuart Mill would roll over in his grave and pump his fist, nod his head, and give a “Hells yeah” to Damon’s performance. He’s as cool as the other side of the pillow, or in David Mamet’s terms: “My motherfucker is so cool sheep count him to go to sleep.” Even during his brief flashback panic attacks, Bourne is self-possessed, allowing himself three quick breaths before composing himself, knocking out a potential killer and stealing his pistol in a single fluid motion that will have you jumping out of your seat and waving your “Bourne is #1” foam finger at the screen. And if there was ever a question about Bourne’s status as the thinking man’s action hero, he unequivocally answers it by beating the shit out of an assassin with a book. A book, people! How is that for a metaphor?
Indeed, for the minimalist in all of us, The Bourne Ultimatum offers an environment free of clutter — there aren’t any big explosions standing in the way of the doorway, no clunky exposition to trip over, and no digressive subplots blocking your path. Greengrass builds a cinematic floor plan that would make Ludwig Mies van der Rohe proud and creates in Jason Bourne the perfect minimalist hero — the ideal mix of style and function. It’s a doozy folks, and the only third part in a trilogy that actually left me wanting (aching) for a fourth.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.