The Bourne Ultimatum

August, 2007, Thriller

Directed by:Paul Greengrass

Starring:Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez, and with Albert Finney<br/ >and Joan Allen

Note to Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise: 

Gentlemen, beware of returning to your respective spy franchises without taking the measure of Matt Damon’s latest turn as Jason Bourne in this third installment in a series based on novelist Robert Ludlum’s intrepid operative. Older, physically worn and still haunted by a past with which he cannot yet come to terms, Bourne once again employs a full range of covert skills in struggling to uncover how and where it all began. This dazzlingly frenetic piece of movie-making completes the finest espionage trilogy since Alec Guinness brought John LeCarre’s George Smiley to British television nearly 30 years ago and clearly raises the bar for future Mission Impossible and James Bond films. More importantly, it’s been done with consummate skill.

British director Paul Greenglass, who also directed The Bourne Supremacy, (Ultimatum’s immediate predecessor) exceeds the already impressive high-tech, high-pressure style he employed five years ago in the brilliant faux-documentary Bloody Sunday and the first half of United 93, his recreation of the only hijacked plane not to hit its intended target on 9/11. Working with cinematographer Oliver Wood, (who’s done all three Bourne films) and editor Christopher Rouse, (with whom Greenglass worked on both Supremacy and United 93) the director gives new meaning to the old cliché “non-stop action”. Hop-scotching from one point of view and camera angle to another with relentlessly unnerving speed, Ultimatum races to keep up with Bourne’s efforts to retrace his own murderous steps as a C.I.A. assassin and identify those responsible for repeatedly attempting to eliminate him. From Moscow to Tangiers, Paris to London, Madrid to Manhattan and back again, Bourne battles the demons of his own past while engaged in a duel of wits with Noah Vosen, (David Strathairn) the head of The Agency’s “black ops” and the latter’s small army of heavily armed thugs, intent on preventing Bourne from decoding the secrets of his deadly past. 

It’s a rare espionage thriller that combines breathtaking action with interesting, complex characters, but Damon’s resolute, cryptic Bourne, hounded by self-doubt but capable of brutally efficient self-preservation contrasts perfectly with Vosen, the icily-detached bureaucrat. This button-down collared cipher, who favors conservative suits, rimless eyeglasses and egg-white omelets, values self-preservation and the careers of his venal superiors more than anything else; as played by Strathairn to chilling perfection, Vosen emerges as an implacable villain worthy of Bourne’s obsessively methodical quest for self-knowledge. Damon continues his recent track record of interesting performances; in roles as diverse as those to be found in Syriana, The Departed and The Good Shepard, he’s repeatedly demonstrated the ability to alter his characters’ personal styles without shedding the bottled-up, angry energy that’s put to such good use here. In his 85th role since debuting in John Sayles Return of The Secaucus Seven some 27 years ago, the quietly talented Strathairn continues to bring credibility to every role he undertakes.     

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this unusually thoughtful action movie is its scabrous depiction of America’s spy agency. The use of torture, the elimination of American as well as foreign targets without hesitation, the corruption of senior C.I.A. officials and the large numbers of junior staff who respond with Pavlovian efficiency to even the most ethically questionable commands are presented matter-of-factly as part of how our security operations function. Julia Styles and Joan Allen reprise their roles from previous installments, offering succor to Bourne and providing some sense of individual propriety in their capacity as C.I.A. employees, but their impact is dwarfed by the sheer numbers of those within the institution who dutifully carry out Vosen’s horrific instructions without a murmur of protest. When Allen’s character at one point asks Vosen to morally justify what’s he’s going to do, he merely responds “We’re going to win”. Such a blatant indictment of one of the country’s heretofore most respected government agencies in a big budget, mainstream Hollywood production speaks volumes about the public’s change of mood in the post-World Trade Center years… 

As he did in Supremacy, Greenglass lays on a climatic car chase here that runs on far too long and the apparent ease with Bourne slips into and out of the plot’s many locales over-reaches even the generous suspension of disbelief that films in this genre require. More importantly, gifted character actors such as Albert Finney, Scott Glen and Paddy Considine are employed to merely move the storyline along without being provided sufficient dialogue to turn them into credible characters. But the whipsaw tempo of the director’s cinematic skills, when combined with the gritty humanity Damon provides his troubled hero and the soulless motivations of his tormentors make Ultimatum terrific fun.

What’s to become of the intrepid Mr. Bourne? Greenglass provides a denouement which suggests, with brilliantly enigmatic imagery, that his hero’s successful confrontation with his past results in a rebirth of sorts, which may hint at an end to his journey or at least new directions for his wanderings.  

The verdict? Not only the best spy film in recent memory, but the best action movie of the year.

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