Imagine that you woke up one morning to discover you couldn’t remember anything about your life – not your name, age, background… nothing! Your first thought is probably going to be: who am I? Now imagine that circumstances reveal that you have fighting skills to rival a martial arts master and the ability to MacGyver life-saving equipment from items as banal as a clothespin and a house fan. Now you’re going to ask how you came by these arcane skills and why you need them. Then you’re probably going to wonder how these skills have been put to use. Welcome to the world of Jason Bourne!
Loosely based on the Robert Ludlum novel of the same name, The Bourne Ultimatum completes a trilogy of thrilling action/spy flicks that are centered around Jason Bourne [Matt Damon] and his quest to answer the questions listed above. There are the usual corrupt CIA officials; the usual incorruptible CIA officials; a number of operatives/assets at the disposal [sometimes literally] of the corrupt officials [who seem to outrank the incorruptible ones]; and a series of events that begin with a highly placed CIA person giving a London newspaper reporter [Paddy Considine] just information to threaten those corrupt CIA officials.
Like all great action flicks, the fights are numerous and nasty; the chase sequences [on foot, on motorbikes, in cars] are electrifying and almost stunning original. David Strathairn gives his usual excellent performance as Assistant Director Noah Vosen and we know him to be one of the corrupt officials because he’s too eager to kill people [including his own!]. Scott Glenn brings his usual weight to the project as CIA Director Ezra Kramer, who soon reveals that he knows more than he’s willing to say.
Joan Allen returns as Pamela Landy, the one reasonably powerful CIA agent who figures there’s more to Bourne than merely a threat to national security – in this instance, the bandying about of the phrase serves as something of a comment on its often unfounded use in the real world. Julia Stiles is also back as agent Nicky Parsons, another agent who doesn’t believe that Bourne is the threat that Vosen claims him to be.
Paul Greengrass does a masterful job of taking a more-than-usually-thoughtful script [courtesy of Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi] and breathing adrenaline charged life into it. If there’s a better director with the handheld camera, I’m sure I don’t know who that might be. Under Greengrass’ direction, the camera soars, zooms, twists and jerks in a concerto of controlled pandemonium. Even the still moments [of which there are not many] carry an almost electrical charge.
Taken strictly on a technical level, The Bourne Ultimatum is a masterpiece of action filmmaking – but it’s not all there is here. Indeed, every burst of action – every moment of silence – is informed by the need for Bourne to know everything: who he is/was; why he has all these incredible skills; whether the people he’s killed really needed to be killed.
In a film that has built on every second of the previous two, Bourne has learned that there are consequences to his unremembered actions that have affected him deeply.
He may not remember why he’s killed, but he remembers the faces [if not the names] of every person he’s killed. He remembers flashes of his training, but not how he got there – or even why he was there. Because of his past, his girlfriend, Marie [Franke Potente, seen only in photos and flashback] was killed; because of his past, he has tried to apologize, if not make amends. Now he needs to know what really happened to him and that will have consequences for him as much as for any others.
It’s this need to deal with the consequences of his actions – and the further consequences of his actions in pursuing that need – that elevate The Bourne Ultimatum, and the trilogy as a whole, beyond the level of mere entertainment. Certainly that need takes the Bourne Trilogy beyond the need to merely expose and reckon with the bad guys [whether they’re on “our side” or not…]. To this end, there could be no better casting than Matt Damon for the role of Jason Bourne.
Damon has a look that suggests normalcy – the normalcy of an Eagle Scout, or the boy next door. But he also has an ability to turn off his eyes, to look relentless and remorseless – something that, as he learns more about his past, is replaced by guilt, pain and a longing to be free of his past even as he remembers more of it. When he looks into the eyes of the asset that has been assigned to kill and asks if he even knows the reason he was given the kill order, Bourne’s anguish speaks volumes. This evolution only works because of Damon’s skill…
Even without the emotional undercurrents, the weight of consequences to actions, and the depth of Bourne’s personal journey through the Bourne films, The Bourne Ultimatum would be an amazing ride. With those things, it is something beyond special.
Final Grade: A+