The Bourne Ultimatum
Friday, August 3, 2007
Now with the third film, Bourne is still hellbent on both revenge and finding out exactly who he is. Still on his case is Pam Landy (Joan Allen), a tough but honest agent who wants to bring Bourne in alive, and new on his case is Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), a CIA chief with little regard for human life or regulations. Bourne gets a break in his quest when a London journalist (Paddy Considine) writes a story about a CIA program called Blackbriar, and appears to have talked to a well-informed CIA source that may know something about Bourne's identity. As Bourne tries to track down the source, Vosen tries to track down and eliminate Bourne. The cat and mouse game takes Bourne all around the globe and finally back home to New York for a showdown.
Paul Greengrass ( Bloody Sunday , United 93 ) returns to direct his second Bourne feature. Greengrass came on board in 2004 to direct The Bourne Supremacy, taking over from Doug Liman who had directed the first film and who's gone on to produce the sequels. Greengrass is a talented filmmaker with a documentary background and a knack for getting at the immediacy of events. With The Bourne Ultimatum, he hits the ground running and just never stops. From the opening frame his film is all about movement. The jerky hand-held camera adds a nervous energy to the most mundane scenes. But everything is shot in that verite style, even CIA office meetings. The approach can be effective but Greengrass overuses it. He also employs it in close quarters where the shaky cam effect can start to give you motion sickness. The relentless use of this visual style, heightened by abrupt edits, means that the film is constantly moving at one fast pace. It's kind of like telling a series of jokes but skipping all the set up lines and just stringing together the punchlines--it's all peaks with no valleys. That's a nice concept but there really needs to be some variety to the visual style and pace, otherwise even intense action starts to drag because of the repetitiveness.
Matt Damon and Joan Allen in The Bourne Ultimatum. (Universal)
As with Spider-Man 3 , The Bourne Ultimatum is so much about forward momentum and fighting off enemies that it never seems to stop for dialogue or character development. The first two Bourne films had moments o pause where something besides frantic action was occurring. I think my disappointment about the third film stems from having liked the craft and lean efficiency of the first two films so much that I was hoping this one would be even better. But it's not. It's a notch lower.
Yet even with some problems, The Bourne Ultimatum still delivers an entertaining ride. The pleasure comes chiefly from the way Bourne consistently outwits the the CIA top brass. Bourne's ability to adapt to any situation and play people like Vosen for a fool is definitely satisfying--it's like telling your boss off. But in this film, more than in the previous films, Bourne seems to have become invincible. Nothing can stop him and because his vast superiority, the tension is decreased since we never doubt that he can outwit and out manuever his opponents. In the book, Ludlum allows Bourne to age so that he's not quite as adept and strong as he was at the beginning of his journey. In many ways, that vulnerability makes the literary Bourne more interesting and human than the cinematic one.
But when Greengrass gets the action cranking to John Powell's pulsating score, the film does rock. This is especially true in the scenes in Tangiers where a chase takes Bourne and an assassin over rooftops, through windows and into tight corners where objects like a book become a weapon. In these scenes the film achieves a true adrenaline rush. But we have to wait until this fight near the end to see Bourne improvise a weapon or make use of his environment in a clever way. In previous film outings he used a magazine, a ball point pen and I think a shoelace to overcome opponents. That approach to action has a Hong Kong flavor that's fun.
David Strathairn in The Bourne Ultimatum (Universal)
The franchise has managed to maintain a steady tech crew. From Liman overseeing the entire series to composer John Powell, cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Christopher Rouse all returning. This has given the films something of a unifying feel. But Ultimatum moves Bourne from the gritty real world base of the first film to something of a super spy here who seems to have no weaknesses. The Bourne Identity was more in step with the gritty spy world of Len Deighten's The Ipcress Files , a 60s film that contrasted the gadget-filled spy world of Bond with a more realistic portrait of espionage. But now the latest Bond, Casino Royale , seems more realistic than this latest Bourne outing. At least Daniel Craig's Bond seemed in more peril in his fights than Damon's Bourne, and that sense of physical danger made the Bond fights more intense.
Unlike the other Bourne films, The Bourne Ultimatum , does try to make some political points. Ludlum wrote these books decades ago and had them focused on the Cold War. Screenwriters Tom Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi, however, have updated the novels to the present day. Yet the first two films avoided politics. The Bourne Ultimatum does not. It suggests links between Bourne's training and such current issues as extraordinary rendition and alledged torture. But the sudden need to give this story a contemporary political edge seems merely an afterthought. The script also comes up short when we reach the end of Bourne's journey. I didn't feel like I got a satisfactory answer to his questions. He finds out his name but not his identity. We never really discover who he was and why he chose to become an unquestioning killing machine for the CIA.
Damon, who's aged five years between the first and last film, has grown into the role, He initially seemed too boyish and not entirely convincing as a ruthless assassin suddenly discovering a conscience. But I've come to accept him in the role. Allen and a returning Julia Stiles as fellow agent Nicky Parsons both standout as strong women willing to go against the male establishment in order not to compromise their own integrity. They manage to show compassion without going soft. Strathairn, who usually plays moral men, does a nice turn as a coolly ruthless agent out to protect himself and the agency's covert operations. Albert Finney makes a late in the game appearance as Bourne's Dr. Frankenstein, but his scenes could have used some beefing up.
The Bourne Ultimatum (rated PG-13 for violence) is set to be the final Bourne film. But there have been two additional Bourne novels ( The Bourne Legacy and The Bourne Betrayal ) written after Ludlum's death by Eric Van Lustbader, and thin as they are they could provide material for more films in the highly successful franchise. But unless new films return to plot elements that were abandoned by the films, there doesn't seem much reason or need for another film (expcept to make more money for the studios). The Bourne Ultimatum ends the series with an intense, slightly overlong but ultimately entertaining work. Let's hope they leave it that way.
You can check out Jason Bourne's Extreme Ways on YouTube . The vid includes my favorite improvised Bourne weapon: a ball point pen.