The latest and greatest in a series of turbo-charged thrillers based on novels by the late Robert Ludlum, Ultimatum begins at full gallop, then gradually accelerates to warp speed, while chasing after Jason Bourne (compellingly played, again, by Matt Damon), an amnesiac assassin who’s still haunted by fragmented memories of his murderous past, and still hunting for the black-op masterminds who turned him into such a lethal weapon. Since he does achieve a certain amount of enlightenment at the end of his globe-hopping here – and, I promise, those are all the beans I will spill -- it appears we should trust the reports that the Bourne saga will be a self-contained trilogy, not an ongoing franchise. If so, however, there’s an amusing irony to savor: Just a few months after the 007 series got a potent rebooting with Casino Royale, a first-rate flick that demonstrated (among other things) how James Bond learned to be an ice-cold killer, here we have an even more impressive action-adventure – allegedly a grand finale -- that shows how another secret agent tries to unlearn the very same thing.
Jason Bourne’s obsession with gaining and renouncing knowledge – that is, an obsession with learning who he is, so he can become somebody else – has fueled all three of the Bourne films. The big difference in Ultimatum, as New Yorker film critic David Denby astutely notes, is that the drama is at once redemptive (“How can I escape who I am?”) and, in every sense of the term, reflective: “The creators of the black-ops program are shown to have used such techniques as hooding and waterboarding to break down and remake Bourne’s personality, and he wants to find them. Commenting acidly on current interrogation techniques, the filmmakers suggest that such games were played with Americans as well as with outsiders. This may be a fiction, but it’s a sinister thought.”
It is, of course, a tricky thing, this business trying to slip thinly-veiled political commentary into a popcorn movie. But, then again, as Manohla Dargis writes in her New York Times review, the Bourne films tend to be “unusually smart works of industrial entertainment,” even when – no, make that especially when – they deal with rock-’em, sock-‘em violence: “Death becomes the Bourne series, which, in contrast to most big-studio action movies, insists that we pay attention and respect to all the flying, back-flipping and failing bodies. There’s no shortage of pop pleasure here, but the fun of these films never comes from watching men die. It’s easy to make people watch — just blow up a car, slit someone’s throat. The hard part is making them watch while also making them think about what exactly it is that they’re watching.”
True enough. For me, the most powerful image in the entire trilogy is in a scene that appears early in The Bourne Supremacy (and is reprised, briefly, in Ultimatum), as Jason Bourne sees the woman he loves literally floating out of sight, becoming a mere memory even as he helplessly watches. (It’s an image I suspect Jean Cocteau would have been proud to include in his Orpheus.) These days, it’s not uncommon for an action movie to post a three-digit body count, and make a joke about it. But this scene in Supremacy puts the sting back into death, and none-too-gently reminds us that such carnage is something we blithely take for granted, and usually accept unthinkingly, in films of this sort.
Dargis writes of a similarly significant scene in Ultimatum, “which caps a beyond-belief chase sequence in which Bourne runs and runs and runs, leaping from one sun-blasted roof to the next and diving into open windows as the cops hotfoot after him. He’s trying to chase down a man who’s trying to chase down Bourne’s erstwhile colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). When Bourne comes fist-to-fist with the other man, [director Paul] Greengrass throws the camera, and us along with it, smack in the middle. It’s thrilling at first, and then — as the blows continue to fall, the bodies slow down, and a book is slammed, spine out, into one man’s neck — ghastly.
“An intentional buzz kill, this fight succeeds in bringing you down off the roof, where just moments earlier you had been flying so high with Bourne. (Look at the dude go!) Mr. Greengrass knows how to do his job, and there’s no one in Hollywood right now who does action better, who keeps the pace going so relentlessly, without mercy or letup, scene after hard-rocking scene.
“But he, along with the writers (here, Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), also wants to complicate things, mix some unease in with all the heart-thumping enjoyment. Not because he’s a sadist, or at least not entirely, but because the Bourne series is, finally, about consequences, about chickens coming home to roost.”
Let me second the high praise for Paul Greengrass, who assumed the directorial reins from Doug Liman -- after the latter kicked off the series with The Bourne Identity – to take control of first Supremacy, and now Ultimatum. (In between, he also did a little movie called United 93, which maybe you’ve heard about.) There are extended chase sequences in Ultimatum that likely will be studied by film students for decades to come. (In addition to the one mentioned by Dargis, there’s a splendidly suspenseful shootout in London’s Waterloo Station, and an amazingly harrowing auto chase through Manhattan that actually puts us inside a vehicle brutally rammed by another car.) It’s way past time to call him promising: Greengrass firmly establishes himself here as the best action-movie auteur to appear since John Woo blasted out of Hong Kong.
But while Woo’s trademark style veers toward operatic flamboyance, Greengrass favors an approach that shatters time and movement into jagged shards – even when someone does something as simple as getting out of a car, the action is deconstructed into a dozen or so jump cuts, as if the director just could not bloody wait to show you what happens next -- while somehow sustaining a skittish sense of up-close intimacy you normally associate with cinema verité.
It is a perfect match of style and substance: As The Bourne Ultimatum ricochets between dizzying disorientation and in-you-face specificity, you cannot help but be drawn deeper into its story about a man who’s frantically trying to put the pieces of his psyche back together, but who at the same must remain hyperaware and unceasingly attuned to every new danger that must be must survived, each new opponent who must be neutralized.