The Bourne Ultimatum is the third – and allegedly final – installment in the film series based on Robert Ludlum’s bestsellers. Matt Damon returns as amnesiac government assassin Jason Bourne who, at the end of the previous film, was discovering the inner conscience that his training had presumably beaten out of him. The movie begins with Bourne getting word that British reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) is preparing a story about a covert project called “Black Briar,” an offshoot of the “Treadstone” training program he was originally part of. Bourne believes that the truth about his forgotten origins may lie with the project, so he seeks Ross out. A highly-classified black-ops division of the U.S. government, led by the morally cloudy Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), has found out about the reporter’s story as well. They don’t want their involvement in sanctioned assassinations to be discovered and, more importantly, they think Ross can lead them to Bourne, who needs to be erased in order to keep the project secret.
Several plot points need to be left out here, but Bourne begins tracking down various “Black Briar” leads, eventually discovering that there is still one man out there who can fill in the gaps in his memory. As he follows these clues across several continents, he must outwit Vosen, who has his “assets” (i.e. mercenaries) around every turn. Bourne gets help from two unlikely sources: CIA agent - and former nemesis – Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), whom he famously encountered in the previous film. Landy, in particular, has an intriguing reason for assisting; she’s not entirely comfortable with Vosen’s legally questionable methods.
The Bourne Ultimatum is basically one extended chase scene. With many important elements already established in the first two Bourne movies, this one is free to wrap it all up in grand style. There’s a tense scene in which Bourne tries to guide Ross through a crowded public place as undercover assassins track him. A late-movie car chase is even more stunning, with a final stunt so scary looking that I’m sure my jaw literally dropped as I watched it. The centerpiece, though, is a nearly 15 minute chase through Madrid, which starts on mopeds and motorcycles, then has Bourne and an “asset” running across rooftops, jumping from one building to the next, and finally having a down-and-dirty martial arts fight. Not a single word is spoken in this extended sequence, and I sat completely riveted.
Director Paul Greengrass (who also helmed The Bourne Supremacy, as well as United 93) shoots the whole film with handheld cameras, making us feel as though we’re right in the thick of the action. There is an incredible shot, seen briefly in the television ads, where one person jumps from a rooftop and through the window of an adjoining building. And the camera jumps right behind him. It’s this kind of technique that gives The Bourne Ultimatum a sense of immediacy that most action pictures only dream of achieving. Greengrass knows how to avoid all the action clichés in favor of something more electric.
Although it’s very heavy on action and chases, the movie is by no means empty. Having previously invested four hours in the story of Jason Bourne, it’s clear that this installment is all about resolution. What’s intriguing is that Bourne was trained to be a killer – one who did so without thinking. Yet over the course of three films, as he struggles to remember his authentic self, the character has had to endure an inner battle that’s every bit as thrilling as the physical battles he experiences. That idea really hits home in this third film. Bourne feels that getting to the bottom of “Black Briar” will liberate him from a life of violence. As he gets closer and closer to the truth, our excitement grows. We truly want to see him put it all together and reconnect with his own morality.
I wouldn’t want to give away the ending, which has several legitimately surprising twists, but I will say that Albert Finney has a key supporting role and that the story’s big finale does not disappoint.
It’s hard to believe now, but when The Bourne Identity came out in 2002, it was a bit of a question mark. Matt Damon had certainly established himself as a good actor by that point, but he’d never played a flat-out action hero role. Meanwhile, his good friend Ben Affleck had tried to shoehorn himself into exactly that role, with decidedly mixed artistic results. Many people wondered if Damon was going to make the same mistakes. The difference is that Damon did what Affleck often did not: he exercised quality control by picking a smart script with a qualified director (Doug Liman) attached. He also found a role that played to his strengths. Damon is athletic, but more importantly, he radiates intelligence. In every role he plays, you can feel him thinking on the screen. That ability makes him very believable as Jason Bourne, who has all the training in the world but whose inherent smarts give him a real leg up on everyone else.
As we all know, this has been a summer of sequels, many of which have been disappointing to one degree or another. The Bourne Ultimatum avoids that trap. With its first-rate acting, sharp screenplay, tight direction, and thrilling action, this is the most satisfying sequel of the season. It’s also the best of the Bourne pictures.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Bourne Ultimatum is rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.
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