THE BORNE ULTIMATUM
Running Time 111 minutes
Directed By Paul Greengrass
Written By Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns
Starring Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles
The first 20 minutes of The Bourne Ultimatum, the third and final chapter in the trilogy about the baby-faced C.I.A. operative with amnesia, are better than Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean I, II and III, and anything with Bruce Willis all put together. From there, it’s uphill all the way. A knockout roller-coaster ride custom-made for adrenaline junkies, it’s easily the savviest and most satisfying spy movie in years, besting both of its preceding Bournes—Identity and Supremacy.
Picking up mere seconds from where the last one left off, the film opens on Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne in Moscow, where the brain-scrambled super-spy is still hot on the trail of his own identity, having just tracked down a relative of one of his former victims. After enough expository flashbacks to catch up the uninitiated, the movie puts the pedal to the metal and never shifts gears for two hours straight. The action shifts to London, where a Guardian reporter (Paddy Considine) with a high-level source inside the C.I.A. has stumbled onto the story of Blackbriar, the secret C.I.A. program that replaced Treadstone, the botched C.I.A. program that created a squad of brainwashed government assassins, of which, we now learn, Jason Bourne was the pilot candidate. Splashing Bourne’s name all over the British tabloids, the reporter brings the full force of the C.I.A. down on Jason’s hapless head, luring him back to England to search for clues. A meeting between hero and reporter goes awry, and suddenly Bourne is back on his quest to fit together the pieces of the elusive puzzle that will ultimately lead him back to the shadowy place that spawned him. It’s here in London that we meet the crack team of spooks and G-men that oversees the 24-hour video and audio surveillance networks that our governments have so lovingly assembled for our protection in a paranoid world. (Think no one’s listening in on your cellphone conversations? Think again.) Leading the C.I.A. scabs as they break every law in the books is Noah Vosen, played smartly against type by David Strathairn. As soon as the oily Vosen gets wind of Bourne’s presence in London, he pulls out all the stops to nab him—and people start to die. The ingenious ways they die pump oxygen into the bloodstream of The Bourne Ultimatum, keeping you dizzy and creeping you out. Bring smelling salts.
Unlike the grandiose, megalomaniacal archfiends in the James Bond franchise, the assassins in the Bourne films have been played by some of our most down-to-earth character actors—everymen like Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and now Strathairn. The message is clear, and it’s chilling: the sang-froid of the Treadstone and Blackbriar spies may be the stuff of escapist Robert Ludlum fiction, but the men who play them are all too real. If the Bourne series does stretch to another installment (without Matt Damon), then don’t be surprised to see the Abe Lincoln countenance of nice guy Sam Waterston dispatching bounty hunters to wipe out women and children. The enemies here are the nameless, faceless, morally ambiguous bureaucrats who keep the system chugging along year after year, no matter who lives in the Oval Office. Who do you think is stationed in Washington typing up transcripts of all those government wiretaps? They have to be familiar faces at P.T.A. and town hall planning-board meetings somewhere. In the end, that’s a much scarier proposition than a guy in Armani with a solid-gold Rolls Royce who wants to blow up Fort Knox.
Fortunately, except for a few lines of hammy dialogue by Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns that hint too obviously at the current administration, British director Paul Greengrass (United 93) is content to leave the political commentary in the subtext. Instead he wisely concentrates on serving up thrills and spills, and lots of them—all flawlessly executed. In almost every action movie these days, the plot skids to a halt at random points while the actors blow things up or beat the hell out of each other. Here, every single set piece—the cat-and-mouse game in Waterloo Station, the rooftop footrace in Tangier, the de rigueur car chase through the streets of Manhattan—is shot and edited at Grand Prix speed, yet the film never loses its momentum, balance or sense of story and character. By the end, Bourne survives more explosions and demolitions than Wile E. Coyote. The scene where he drives himself off the roof of a parking garage strains credulity, to be sure, but by then you’re so wrapped up in the story that you’ll relish every curve the movie throws at you.
In addition to Strathairn’s fine turn as Vosen, Joan Allen does well in her returning role as Pamela Landy, Bourne’s only ally on the inside. And Albert Finney adds a dangerous tone to the finale as the Dr. Mengele behind the birth of Jason Bourne. The only false note is Julia Stiles, who reprises her role from the first two films in what seems like a contrived, plot-straining coincidence. But they all lend support in the truest sense, because it’s Matt Damon’s show all the way. Bourne is a bit of a cipher; his whole identity is that he has no identity. In the hands of a less accomplished actor that might be a recipe for blandness. But Damon is a hard-working beaver who brings such intensity and singularity of purpose to the role that you can’t take your eyes off him. Not too difficult, since he’s in almost every frame of film, but still quite an admirable feat to demand and get the kind of serious attention that is justified.
If The Bourne Ultimatum is purportedly the end of the franchise, it’s both a blessing and a shame. Few filmmakers and fewer movie stars have the good sense to leave well enough alone when they smell more money waiting in the sequel trough. As a trilogy, the Bourne movies added up to a single, thrilling arc of a narrative. We don’t need another. Mr. Damon says he has thrown in the towel with this one. Smart guy. He knows an exit line when he hears one.