As far as serious minded summer action pictures go, The Bourne Ultimatum delivers the goods. It’s suspenseful, full of action and it never pauses long enough to allow you to get bored. While it doesn’t break any new ground, it stands apart from the other sequels that have come out this summer in that it’s actually an improvement over what has come before. This third entry in the Bourne franchise doesn’t offer up anything really new, but it’s brought off with more skill and confidence than either of the other films. This is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and it doesn’t waste any time screwing around. As a result, Ultimatum leaves most of the other bloated summer movies in the dust.
Plot wise, Ultimatum will feel familiar to anyone who has seen either of the first two films. Though it’s technically a continuation of the story that began with The Bourne Identity and continued with The Bourne Supremacy, it’s really more of the same: Trained killer Jason Bourne still doesn’t remember who he is and there are still a number of powerful people who would like to see him dead. That’s about it. There are a few added wrinkles and a handful of new characters, however. This time around Operation Treadstone has been folded into Operation Blackbriar, an umbrella program for all of the CIA’s secret operations. When an investigative journalist (Paddy Considine) stumbles upon the program, the men in charge (Scott Glenn and David Strathairn) suspect that Bourne is the source of the leak and they want him eliminated. Pam Landy (Joan Allen reprising her role from the last film) isn’t so sure, but she wants Bourne for her own reasons. For his part, Bourne just wants to put an end to the whole thing and hopefully find out who he really is and where he came from.
It’s a pretty thin thread of plot, but in the span of less than two hours, the story jumps from Russia to Turin to London to Madrid to Tangiers and finally to New York. It’s a breathless pace with few pauses in between and Jason Bourne seems to be running or speeding the whole way. It’s the action that drives this movie and the plot is just enough to hold it all together.
As the core of the movie, the action has good points and bad points. First, there’s plenty of it and that’s a good thing. Second, the stunts and car chases seem to be relatively CGI-free which is very refreshing in these digitized, seemingly danger free days of movie making. There’s a car wreck near the end that is especially tasty if you enjoy carnage. Unfortunately there is also the shaky camera and fast editing that is kind of a hallmark of both Greengrass directed Bourne films. Some people like it and some people don’t. I’m not a fan. It’s not because I can’t tell what’s going on, but because I like to get a sense of geography of an action sequence. I like to know who is standing where and to see the individual blows and who they’re coming from. The quick editing just feels like they’re covering up for actors who can’t really fight. Instead of whole fluid scenes, we’re given fragments. They’re like cookie crumbs. They’re recognizable as a cookie and they’re tasty, but it’s more satisfying to be able to take a big bite out of the whole thing. You’ve got to have something to chew on.
The shaky camera business works well in scenes where people are talking intently on the phone or typing passwords intently into computers, but during real action scenes, it’s overkill. It’s not confusing, or nauseating or headache inducing, it’s just too much. Same with the fast editing. In the big picture I’m sure it helps contribute to the brisk pace I commended earlier, but in the context of specific action scenes, it’s a little frustrating. Give the scene some room to breathe. Allow the audience to stand back and enjoy it a little.
Secondary to the action is the acting. The new cast members, Considine, Glenn, Strathairn and also Albert Finney are welcome additions to Damon, Allen and Julia Stiles who returns for her third film. The acting lends credibility to the plot, but the Bourne movies have never really called for dramatic gymnastics. You don’t watch one to plumb the depths of the human soul and there is even less of an emotional component in Ultimatum than in the first two films.
That lack of emotional depth isn’t necessarily fatal, nor is it required in an action movie, but it provided a welcome bit of resonance in the earlier films. If there’s one thing the series lacks, it’s gravity and the latest is the lightest of all. Since Bourne doesn’t really seem to be an iconic character like a James Bond or a Dirty Harry and since the action sequences don’t really rely on memorable, over-the-top set pieces, the lack of emotional weight leaves little else to remember when it’s all over. With all three films I’ve found myself forgetting about them soon after they’re over. They’re great when they’re playing in front of me, but they don’t linger and I don’t find myself wanting to watch them over again.
I’m probably quibbling too much about a movie that ultimately I liked quite a bit. It was an action movie and I was entertained after all. The whole series deserves some credit for asking audiences to take their action movies seriously once again. Though I’m not fond of direct comparisons between James Bond and Jason Bourne, it’s probably true the most recent Bond film Casino Royale was as good as it was because of a seriousness of purpose that I’ll bet was inspired directly by Jason Bourne. Future action movies could do worse than to use Bourne as a template and despite it’s flaws, The Bourne Ultimatum is the best of the series so far.
The Bourne Ultimatum. USA 2007. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Screenplay by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi. Cinematography by Oliver Wood. Edited by Christopher Rouse. Original Music Composed by John Powell. Starring Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Albert Finney and Joan Allen. 1 hour 55 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action. 3.5 stars (out of 5).