After a summer blockbuster season that contained a myriad of films that, for better or worse, placed the staging of their action set pieces over such concerns as story logic and intelligence, The Bourne Ultimatum comes as a refreshing, if somewhat paranoid, change of pace. The film is a smart thriller that successfully taps into growing concerns about government intrusion into its citizenry’s private lives, illegal operations performed in the name of national security and the disturbing lengths that they may go to protect their secrets.
Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne is still on the run, trying to track down the forces that created him to be an unstoppable killer for the CIA. His investigations lead him from the assassination of a British journalist who came close to discovering the truth to the streets of Madrid, across the rooftops of Tangier to the streets of midtown Manhattan. Attempting to stop him is Vosen, a CIA director (David Strathairn) in charge of the agency’s highly classified, highly illegal black ops. Called in to assist Vosen, and provide a convenient scapegoat if their work becomes public, is Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), a CIA agent who had tracked Bourne before and who begins to develop a repulsion for the type of work that Vosen’s division is doing.
Not so much a sequel to 2004’s Bourne Supremacy, Ultimatum the second of two interlocking puzzle pieces with the previous film. The main plot of Supremacy ended with a wounded Bourne limping off into the darkness of a Moscow street, with a coda set an indeterminate time later where Bourne contacts Landy in New York City. A majority of Ultimatum rests comfortably between these two scenes, opening with Bourne escaping Moscow police and the phone call coda provides the plot point that sets the film’s finale in motion.
Director Peter Greengrass has crafted a film that visually imparts to its audience the tensions and urgency that Bourne is feeling at any one time in the film. Scenes where Bourne knows that he is under observation from public security cameras drip with a tension that plays on one’s own fears of Big Brother-style unwarranted surveillance. The fights in the film are brutal, staccato ballets. No one gets comedic one-liners to punctuate the action. Here Greengrass puts us in the midst of the fights, where the only sounds are the grunts of combat and the crunch of bone and cartilage being beaten against each other.
If there’s anything disappointing about the film, it is that Bourne seems to have found the answers he’s looking for and is at peace. Greengrass even apes the opening shot of the franchise’s inaugural film The Bourne Identity (2002) as a way of bookending the films. A few more thrillers of this caliber would be a welcome change from the usual being served by Hollywood.