Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Julia Stiles and Albert Finney
Runtime: 111 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action
I’ll avoid saying anything silly like THE ULTIMATE BOURNE!
I remember seeing The Bourne Identity at a sneak preview back in 2002, not really because the movie was that great but because it was the night before I was going to leave for a three week trip to France.
I was surprised at the development of the relationship between Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz (played by Franka Potente), a rarity for action-chase films. That was what stood out the most.
Two years later, after a rushed production, came The Bourne Supremacy, with a new director and a script that deviated much more from the Robert Ludlum book on which it was based. It was one of the big surprises of 2004, both commercially and critically, and most of all it surprised me. The new director Paul Greengrass brought an electric style that made the entire movie come alive. I remember walking out thinking that there were no boring moments, that it didn’t follow the beaten to death format of most action films that was exposition, action set piece, exposition, set piece, set piece, last minute exposition, tacked on ending. There was more to it – everything was wrapped together. The action served the story, the exposition was told through action, and yet as hectic and crazy as it got it managed to still have character moments.
So, oddly enough, The Bourne Ultimatum became my most anticipated film of this summer and after being disappointed by so many recent films (Pirates I’m looking at you), I was almost sure I’d be let down.
And then…I wasn’t.
In this film Bourne chases and is chased, and sometimes both happen at the same time. It all becomes twisted yet it never loses a basic simplicity that keeps us involved.
There are some great additions to the cast, including Albert Finney, Scott Glenn and David Strathairn (he was Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.) The acting has been strong in the entire series, and it’s great to see the “evil higher-ups” not spitting and screaming at each other but talking calmly and realistically, their menace more believable. Then when they do yell, it actually means something.
There is also a great twist that puts this movie into chronological perspective with the second film.
It is further proof of great directing and writing that the same scene with the same dialogue can have two completely different emotional meanings when spun in different ways. Really connecting this film to The Bourne Supremacy, this further stressed that this is one story told over multiple films. It does that trick better than many sequels nowadays shot back-to-back.
Also, Bourne’s connection to a character with a small role in the previous two films is given new meaning that easily could have become silly and cliché. Instead, it really works and actually gives an extra layer of substance to Bourne and to the people helping him on his dangerous journey to self-discovery. That’s why the film works, because it has real characters who aren’t idiots.
Still, the action does not disappoint. In fact, what makes the action so successful is that there is a sense that it is captured rather than created.
I’d say the style most reminds me of the television show The Shield, which also uses a lot of hand-held camera work and zooms, sometimes shifting out of focus as if it were documenting real events unraveling at breakneck speed before an audience. It’s a style that has gotten Greengrass notice since his 2002 film Bloody Sunday. It’s also a style that could get tiresome, but Greengrass doesn’t keep everything at “11.” Although the handheld is a constant, there are different degrees to how the shots are framed and, especially, how they are edited together. There is a dramatic curve to the writing, directing, and editing, which creates room for slower scenes that aren’t about running around on roof tops.
The second film got a lot of complaints for its use of “shaky cam.” It never bothered me that much, but I do think Greengrass has gotten better at his style. He perfected it with last year’s United 93.
He brings what he has learned to the table here. Even a few shots in The Bourne Ultimatum are completely breathtaking and memorable. One involves a dive into a river, and another is that money-shot from all the trailers of Bourne as he jumps in mid-air through a window. And you can feel the crunch of the metal against the hard road in the New York City car chase.
Yet, the directing is never about just one shot but about how they all connect together. I think this is what helps Paul Greengrass stand out as a director, as in some ways he is almost like a modern (and non-communist) Sergei Eisenstein.
The editors know exactly how to cut the shots together in a rhythmic, almost musical way. One example involves a code word, which we see on a computer screen. At a different location, a character answers when asked for the codeword but does not give the same one. You’re confused for a split-second, and then back on the screen another word is revealed with a different meaning. This all happens in about three seconds, and the entire film is directed and edited with this care, always keeping a sense of mystery and spontaneity. When characters make choices, we feel there are literally making those decisions on screen.
And the credit really goes to everyone who made this film. The music is fantastic, and the best in the series. It really sets the mood without devolving into cliché, and there is some surprising orchestral work.
The writing especially stands out for delivering a script that escapes a lot of its genre confines. In a way, The Bourne Ultimatum becomes the ultimate character driven action film.
This story isn’t going to change your outlook on life, but that was never the intention. And when you look at it as the third sequel in a series based on 80’s spy novels, well that’s something even more startling!
Few things are perfect, though, and there are some small nitpicks.
The flashback scenes are a bit too formula “streaky lights” and “jerky slow motion.” I think it would have been more original and effective if a different film stock were used, perhaps 16mm with a different range of colors to more subtly reveal these important moments. Some very important moments happen during the flashbacks, too. Also, after one particular crash Jason Bourne only has a few bruises on his face. Although in all the movies there are unrealistic moments, everything is still fairly grounded to Earth. This one has the most “superman” elements of any of them, and though the majority of it all fits for the filmic world created it would have been nice to see him a bit more beat up at the end, kinda like how he was bloodied and limping at the end of The Bourne Supremacy. Furthermore, one could argue that the revelations behind Bourne’s past aren’t exactly earth shattering, but the series as a whole has always been more about the journey than the destination. I would argue, as well, that the real twists are more character based than narrative based.
With these minor details aside, this is easily the best action film of 2007. The Bourne Ultimatum will help solidify the Bourne trilogy as being one of the big movie surprises in recent memory. Who would have guessed five years ago that Jason Bourne would become one of the defining action heroes of the decade, like John McClane of the 80’s and Jack Ryan of the 90’s?
Critic’s Conclusion: An endlessly entertaining ride that I can’t wait to see again. Really, it’s up there with the greats. Exciting, tense, but not tiresome, Jason Bourne joins the ranks of other action heroes with J-themed names like John McClane, Jack Ryan and James Bond.
The Bourne Ultimatum