Movie Review: The Bourne Ultimatum
By Matthew Huntley
August 28, 2007
Audiences embrace Jason Bourne as an action hero, I think, because he doesn't mess around. He's direct and real, not suave and charming like the early movie version of James Bond, but just as resourceful. When I mention Bond, I of course refer to the debonair character made famous by Sean Connery and not the hard-nosed spy from Ian Fleming's novels, though the latter is probably more comparable to Bourne than the former.
Bourne, also spawned in literature by Robert Ludlum, is strong, persistent and intelligent, but he's also compassionate and sympathetic. On top of that, he packs one hell of a punch. If you ever get in a fight with him, hope and pray he doesn't have book to sock you with.
The Bourne Ultimatum is the third installment of the Universal franchise, following The Bourne Identity and Supremacy. Once again, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), whose real name we learned is David Webb, is on a mission to find out who he is and track down the people behind Treadstone, the black ops division who trained Bourne to become an assassin and "$30 million weapon," perhaps without much of a choice.
If you recall from "Identity," Bourne woke up in the Mediterranean Sea with amnesia and spent the movie trying to find out who he was and why he knew things like foreign languages and Swiss bank account numbers. In "Supremacy," he was framed for murder and learned his assignments came at the orders of corrupt officials. Now, in "Ultimatum," Bourne seeks revenge and the final clues that will lead him to the people who turned him into a killer.
The movie is not a sequel so much as a continuation of The Bourne Supremacy. The events in the new movie occur during the same timeline as the former film, with Bourne outrunning Russian authorities in Moscow. It takes place prior to Bourne contacting Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), the condoling CIA director who secretly wants to help Bourne. The conversation they had at the end of the last film occurs roughly three-quarters of the way through this one and has more significance than we initially thought.
It begins when Bourne learns he is the subject of a series of newspaper articles by a British journalist named Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who has learned about Bourne and Treadstone through an undisclosed source. Bourne contacts Ross to find the source and answers about Treadstone. The CIA, under Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), orders Bourne to be taken down as a way to keep his organization's illegalities a secret. Vosen sends more assassins under the new banner "black briar" to kill him. Of course, they don't know what they're up against.
What makes the Bourne movies more than simple genre films is the tortured soul of Jason Bourne at their center. Despite their seemingly intricate and tortuous plots, the underlying theme of the series is quite simple: Bourne is an assassin seeking redemption for his sins. He wants to learn about his past, make amends and reaffirm his humanity. He doesn't want to be a killer any more, and through his amnesic experience and love for Marie (Franka Potente), who was killed in the last movie, he wants to be left alone and begin a new life. This allows us to identify and care about him, and Matt Damon's quiet yet forceful energy makes it that much easier.
It would be interesting to see the flip side of this plot. What if an assassin got amnesia, forgot he was an assassin, and through flashbacks, learned he actually liked being a killer? Such was the premise of The Long Kiss Goodnight, but that movie didn't take itself seriously like the Bourne movies do. What if Bourne and the subject of such a hypothetical film met and discussed what makes them tick over a cup of coffee? Perhaps that's another movie waiting to be made.
The Bourne Ultimatum is loaded with the usual stunts, hand-to-hand combat and zippy editing that began with the first movie and culminated in the second one. It takes place all around the world and again shows Bourne to be one step ahead of his pursuers. For instance, he has the foresight to know he'll need cloths to cover his hands when he jumps over the rooftops of Tangier. And it's amazing how he always walks away from a totaled car completely mobile and unwounded. Bourne isn't a superhero; he's just indestructible like one.
For those who've seen the other movies, "Ultimatum" will feel like it's more of the same, right down to the car chases and disorienting fight scenes. It still has the kinesis to keep viewers interested, even though some of the heavy exposition grows tiresome. The screenplay always has people thinking out loud and informing the audience of where Bourne is and why he needs to be captured. It wants to make sure we're up to speed. I guess that's inevitable for a movie about espionage.
The visual style is also the same, with director Paul Greengrass' signature handheld cinematography. Many complained this was overwhelming in "Supremacy," that it even induced motion sickness. Such complaints are legitimate, but I don't have a problem with the physical shakiness so much as Greengrass' motivation for its use in regards to the story. In Greengrass' powerful and unforgettable United 93, about the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11, he flippantly employed handheld camerawork before the urgency of the story called for it.
In the latter two Bourne movies, the camera style is mostly problematic during the fight scenes, where the handheld shots and rapid cuts make the action disorienting and difficult to make out. This might have worked if the fights were filmed from the fighters' point of view, but they're filmed from ours, and we're not shaking.
What holds the movie together is the new insights into Bourne's character.Through subtle expression and strong acting, we have a greater sense of Jason Bourne as a man. He and Nicky (Julia Stiles), who was Bourne's contact for the Treadstone project, share three tender scenes together and Greengrass accents them perfectly by confiding in the actors' looks to convey emotion. He holds on them just long enough for the shots to take on a deeper meaning.
As an action movie, The Bourne Ultimatum is slick and fast-paced, but not exactly inventive. As a drama, it's patient and meditative and hits more than a couple emotional notes. It's also well-acted, with Matt Damon successfully trademarking the Jason Bourne character as his own. Still looking young, he turns Bourne into someone with whom we can empathize and even admire. Other strong performances come from Stiles, Allen, Straithairn and veteran Albert Finney.
I wouldn't say the Bourne movies push any kind of the envelope, but they do work as solid action entertainment with enough of an emotional hook to keep viewers' hearts invested, which is rare for the action genre. Audiences will be pleased with "Ultimatum," but I don't think they'll be blown away. Still, by the time a third installment comes around, as we've seen this summer, a series can start to destroy itself under its own hype and expectations. Fortunately, Bourne and company escape that fate and cap off the series handsomely.