THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
You've gotta hand it to little Matty Damon for eclipsing the star power of his South Boston pal Ben Affleck and landing a pair of the most lucrative film franchises out there. He's already appeared in this summer's long-legged hit Ocean's Thirteen, and his third (and final?) Jason Bourne adventure is poised to rake in a handful of cash. And deservedly so.
The obvious temptation for fans and critics alike is to routinely compare the Bourne films to the Bond series. When 007 returned to his Fleming roots with Casino Royale, scores of people speculated that it was a desperate cash-in trying to emulate Bourne's more serious take on traditional spy tales. In truth they are two very different entities, and there are elements of the Bond character that will never appear in Jason Bourne - nor should they. Bourne is not a limb of the government consistently undoing the plots of terrorists and megalomaniacal madmen. He's a severed limb fighting his own government at every turn, trying to uncover the shady men behind his inhuman training and conversion into a walking weapon. Imagine Bond doing battle with M all the time, and that's closer to what you have here.
In this regard, Jason Bourne is one of the great cinema anti-heroes. As an audience, our sympathies should not easily lie with him, for his lethal activities should regularly threaten to turn us against him. Yet ever since the first film in the series (The Bourne Identity), Damon has done such a great job humanizing the beast that we all end up rooting for him. He's the personification of ‘sticking it to The Man', and manages to make the government responsible for his own sordid actions. It was they who made him into a killing machine. He didn't choose this path. Or did he?
Since reemerging from the Mediterranean Sea with no memories and a pile of stray bullets in his body, he's been on a violent rampage hoping to ferret out exactly who and what he is. Along the way, there's been the sinking suspicion that perhaps the new Bourne is the only persona that matters, and that he shouldn't go digging too far lest he dislike the person he meets on the other side of the mirror. What would it do to him to discover that he is a terrorist himself? In The Bourne Ultimatum, we (and Jason) finally discover the truth behind his recruitment and his original identity.
We've already been introduced to the supersecret Treadstone Organization, and to Bourne's botched mission to assassinate an African dictator named Nykwana Wombosi. Part of the series' pedigree is the consistently superior casting of Treadstone bigwigs, from Identity's Chris Cooper and Brian Cox to the current crop of Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and Joan Allen (the latter as returning character Pamela Landy). Landy was one of Bourne's major foils in the previous film, but with as much experience as she now has with the wily rogue agent, she finds herself siding with him more and more, until we wonder if they might become allies by film's end.
David Strathairn is a perfect addition to the cast, and his Noah Vosen is a hard-ass CIA operative who does his best to keep an even ‘secreter' arm of Treadstone called Blackbriar under wraps. After an informant leaks part of this material to the British press, it's through journo Simon Ross' (Paddy Considine, giving a marvelous and nervous performance) subsequent articles for the Guardian that Bourne learns that he was the first experiment in the hush-hush program. And so unravels a complex cat and mouse game where not only are Bourne and his enemies hunting one another, but they're both simultaneously sniffing for the source of the leaked information (though for very different reasons). And as is the tradition of this unpredictable series, the hunter can find himself the hunted within a second's time.
From this point the film is one intense chase scene, and returning composer John Powell's manic string themes help heighten the cheek-clenching drama. He also takes a cue from the Bond series by knowing when the action requires music, and when it's more effective naked on screen. A series of set pieces follow, each one ratcheting up the tension. It begins with an amazing covert encounter with Ross at Waterloo station, where Jason desperately tries to keep his contact alive while routinely thinking three steps ahead of his opponents. There's also a tour de force section set in Morocco, as Jason tries to thwart an assassination attempt, and then must take out the government's hitman before he and Julia Stiles' Nicky Parsons become the next targets. And these aren't your run-of-the-mill killers, either. They're coldly called ‘assets' within the organization, and unlike the faceless henchmen seen in most action cinema, they are truly brutal forces to be reckoned with.
Stiles is another welcome return, and she has to portray most of her character's buried emotions through facial expressions alone. Her wounded stares let us in on the possibility of a history she's shared with Bourne. A history he has no recollection of. And certainly she must realize that he has learned his lessons regarding mixing love with life as a refugee. At first her reintroduction is worrisome as one fears she'll be used as a simple plot device meant to give Bourne a girlfriend and inject some estrogen into the sausage fest at hand. (The filmmakers have acknowledged that they wouldn't have killed off Franka Potente's character Marie so early had they known how popular the series would become.)
Yet Nicky's relationship with Bourne is interesting, in that she's been a part of the offending organization and has a different outlook on life than most 'normal' gals. There's a great scene in which she dyes her hair black before beginning her own life as a machine on the run (“It gets easier”, Bourne assures her) and winds up resembling Bourne's deceased lover Marie. The sight of her stops him in his tracks. But the question we now have to ask is: Is she reminding him of Marie, or did Marie subconsciously remind him of Nicky? This material is mined carefully, and the screenplay (by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi) knows just how to play it.
It's great that director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) has returned to the fold after his successful Bourne Supremacy, since he lends a vital, documentary style to both the action set pieces and the tense situation room drama occurring in the secret CIA headquarters at New York. The fight scenes are as frantic and heart pounding as always, and sometimes his framing is a bit too tight to maintain focus on when splayed across the big screen, but in a way this further reinforces the sense of danger and not knowing what's going to happen. Damon is still in top form, and does a fantastic job running across glass strewn rooftops and fighting an opponent to death in a cramped shower stall.
Bourne endures so many "Oh My God!" moments (many of them in vehicles, and one at the wheel of an NYC cop car is simply insane!), that it's Damon's confidence that enables the audience to truly believe that one human being can withstand this much punishment. Obviously he will have to burn out at some point, but Bourne is great at picking up the pieces and moving on while his sinews still function. Damon thankfully plays him as a vulnerable agent capable of being wounded, as he limps heavily throughout the finale and even in the intro he is only caught hiding out in Russia because he's looking for First Aid equipment. His humanity is also glimpsed in his refusal to murder opponents if they are unarmed (or incapable of deadly hand to hand combat). He likes to believe that this is the person he has been all along, but we're not so sure.
Aside from the mindblowing action what really drives the audience crazy (in a good way) is the sheer exuberant thrill of watching Bourne outsmart his creators/tormentors again and again and again. He's a cool-as-hell military take on Frankenstein's Monster, and we just can't wait to see what sort of ace he'll pull out of his sleeve next. When he lets Treadstone ops know that he can see what they're doing as they talk on the phone (or better yet, lets them know that he's in their office), you can't help but go nuts and start spontaneously applauding.
The Bourne saga has been one long action-filled meditation on conditioning versus choice. There's a great moment with one of the 'assets', who simply can't understand why Bourne didn't take his life when he had the chance. It also delves into Jason's mothlike inability to live life without gravitating towards the potentially damaging knowledge of what he was and where he came from. It's a fascinating take on second chances, and how sometimes our old choices can shackle us and restrict us from enjoying those second chances.
There's a lot of nice symmetry in Ultimatum, which references, mirrors and wraps up elements from Doug Liman's stylish first film from five years ago. By the time Moby's familiar theme of Extreme Days comes squealing over the soundtrack, one is struck by the notion that this incredibly satisfying trilogy is complete. In fact, this very well may be the best Bourne yet. But will this be all, or will the legacy continue like its licensed-to-kill competitor from across the pond? You'll just have to see for yourself, and try not to fall off the edge of your seat in the meantime. And bring some extra napkins to wipe the sweat off your palms. And bring a spare pre-paid phone – just in case.