[4 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The Summer of 2007 has been tough on the tre-quel: that seemingly final chapter in a studio mandated trilogy or continuing franchise. So far, we’ve had the excellent Pirates pic, the so-so Spider-man saga, and the dreadful stench of the latest Shrek mess. Yet if one is looking for a clear winner in the three-peat paradigm, it would be that latest attempt to reclaim his part by the amnesiac government assassin, Jason Bourne. As portrayed with Cold War cruelness by a breathtaking Matt Damon, the latest installment in the Robert Ludlum inspired series picks up six weeks after the event in the preceding chapter. Also back are the team behind Supremacy’s success—screenwriter Tony Gilroy and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass. But the maintenance of creative continuity is only one of the newly named Bourne Ultimatum’s saving graces. As with any last acts, the inevitable clash between mystery solved and said truth’s significance offers a sizeable challenge. Here, it creates a compelling and clever espionage thriller.
With his girlfriend dead and his memory intermittent, our aggressive anti-hero is still trying to figure out who he is, and why the government trained him to kill. While following up leads in Moscow, Bourne learns of a reporter who is threatening to blow the lid off some special ops project code named “Blackbriar”. Desperate to discover what he’s found—and more importantly—the source that gave him all this classified information, Bourne heads to London and contacts the journalist. Unfortunately, the CIA, lead by devious department head Noah Vosen, wants the same data. While agent Pamela Landy continues to help the troubled operative, higher ups in the bureau want both Bourne and the journalist silenced—forever. Bourne eventually finds himself in Spain, seeking a man who once supervised the entire Blackbriar project. There, he runs into another old friend, agent Nicky Parsons, who helps him track his target to Tangiers. Of course, there are hired killers everywhere, and Bourne narrowly escapes with his life. All paths lead right back to the US, and as his memory returns, so does his resolve to expose the agency’s wrongdoing once and for all.
It seems like a complicated cat and mouse exercise, but the great thing about The Bourne Ultimatum is that all the spy vs. spy intrigue is carefully controlled and eagerly explained. Greengrass knows that modern audiences, not used to thinking during their action packed stunt setpieces, need this kind of material spoon fed to them. So every once in a while, he lets his wildly erratic handheld camera settle down for a few seconds, so that important pieces of the puzzle can be fitted together. Since some have complained that the director’s ‘from the gut’ approach to cinematography can lead to a nauseating case of shaken camera syndrome, not only do these sequences aid the exposition, but they also help the queasiness pass. There is a wildly evocative ‘you are there’ approach to Greengrass’s style, and some will find it disorienting. But when you have sequences as strong as these, the artistic quirks can be forgiven.
Indeed, The Bourne Ultimatum lives and dies by its car chases and fisticuffs, and it has to be said that some of the best examples in the genre exist in this electrifying film. It is especially true of a second act situation in which Bourne follows an assassin targeting gal pal Nicky Parsons. As he leaps from rooftop to rooftop and through many a Moroccan citizen’s window, we anticipate an amazing standoff once the significant players meet. But Greengrass does away with all the glorified machismo grandstanding and simply lets two professional killers do what they do best. Like the mano-y-mano magnificence of the extended brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live, Bourne beats the ever-lovin’ snot out of a dark, mysterious murderer, skin smacking and flesh pounding with such unmitigated ferocity the audience can practically feel each blow.
Even better is the last act car chase between Bourne, the CIA and his ally Landy. As he makes the Feds look foolish, our ‘hero’ wheels a selection of vehicles through Manhattan. Careening past—and sometimes off—buildings while squealing around corners with hairpin histrionics, it’s the kind of vehicular mayhem that’s more or less missing from your typical popcorn romp. The reason is simple—Greengrass doesn’t cheat. Instead of using CGI autos to achieve his ends, he smashes real ones up, Blues Brothers style, errant parts and unpredictable chaos creating that much more of an adrenalin rush. Yet even when not trying to take on the entire collection of black ops agents (as in the opening slink through Waterloo Station), The Bourne Ultimatum understands suspense. It’s not just that we care for these characters—it’s that Greengrass follows of golden oldie formula of metering out just enough information to keep us guessing. And once our brain is engaged, the rest of our knotted nervous system is sure to follow.
Of course, none of this would work without characters and performers who can make you believe that the random images generated by a computer monitor actually mean something in the grand scheme of national security. Behind the boards, David Strathairn is undeniably nasty as the patsy pushing buttons for the big boys in the Cabinet, while Joan Allen delivers a dynamic turn as the whistleblower waiting for the goods to give her resolve. While she’s suffered from some miscasting in the past (The Omen remake) Julie Stiles is actually very good here, playing the kind of Barbie bargaining chip one would easily see the CIA recruiting for her espionage eye candy value. As Simon Ross, the reporter holding the key to Bourne’s ultimate identity, Paddy Considine has a hound dog face that just screams extended tour of duty. Though he’s not on screen for very long, his nervous need to confirm the facts make him an instant audience guide.
And then there’s Damon. As an actor, this iron-jawed good guy has always seemed one role away from finally coming into his own. Even as part of the stellar cast in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed, he tends to have a frat boy weightlessness that’s hard to overcome. But here, turning down the volume and amplifying his noted physicality, he comes across as commanding, dominating, and most importantly, deadly. You believe his Bourne is a ticking timebomb of brainwashed brutality and remorseless destruction. While he tells Stiles’ Parker that he’s haunted by the face of everyone he’s ever killed, this is a machine managing to continue on its highly lethal path with relative ease. Without an individual who can sell us on such terrifying tenacity, these movies would fall apart (imagine his buddy Ben Affleck here—hmm…). But thanks to Damon, it steamrolls over the shakier bits to deliver boffo blood and guts.
While by no means the end of the Bourne narrative (fans of the novels know this all too well), what The Bourne Ultimatum actually represents is the final phase in both Paul Greengrass and his maturing stars’ ascension into the box office big time. By consistently delivering the goods in a genre that hasn’t been relevant since Reagan regaled the Russians to “tear down this wall”, they’ve outdone a certain Mr. Bond while proving that, with the right material and the right talent behind and in front of the camera, even the hoariest old cinematic clichés can be revived and enlivened. While he may not have had the insurmountable mandate of making pirates culturally relevant again (somewhere in cinema heaven, Gore Verbinski’s table is on infinite reserve), Greengrass got this right. After all, in 2007 spies seem better suited for spoofing. Yet The Bourne Ultimatum simply does what it does best—defy convention while embracing its best bits. The result is one of the summer’s surest efforts.