The third movie in Universal’s Jason Bourne cycle bears no resemblance whatsoever to the third book in Robert Ludlum’s trilogy of eponymous novels, upon which it is ostensibly based, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the first two movies and read the books. Then again, The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore’s best Bond film, bears no resemblance to the Ian Fleming novel of that name, either.* Fidelity to a book has never been a prerequisite for a good spy movie. And it’s just as well, because The Bourne Ultimatum is easily the best entry in the Matt Damon series, and quite possibly the best action spy movie in years. (The Lives of Others isn’t action.)
Unlike the rather convoluted plot of the last movie, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum is incredibly straightforward in its storytelling. The story of amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne’s search for the truth about his past doesn’t have many plot beats, but each one there is develops into a lengthy action setpiece. This isn’t a criticism of the movie, but praise. An action-based spy thriller doesn’t need to be labyrinthine; it just needs to justify its action sequences (as opposed to The World Is Not Enough, for example, which shoehorns them into the story so obtrusively it seems like you’re suddenly watching another movie altogether) and to make sense. On both counts, The Bourne Ultimatum succeeds better than any recent entry in the Mission: Impossible or Bond franchises. And the action sequences in question are uniformly spectacular.
As Bourne travels from one exciting location to another and gets involved in elaborate chases, director Paul Greengrass (co-writer of the infamous British espionage tell-all, Spycatcher) immerses the viewer in the midst of the action. His reckless, hand-held camera techniques were often a little too confusing in Supremacy, but he’s perfected them in Ultimatum. You can always tell what’s going on, but the camera work is still unhinged enough to make you feel like you’re in the middle of it. In one spectacular shot, the hand-held camera leaps after Bourne from one upper storey window into another in the middle of a foot chase!
One of the highlights of the first two Bourne movies for fans of Cold War spy movies was the excellent use of locations. Even though espionage has become much more global since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and even though Europe is no longer its central playing field, there is something about European cities that makes them ideal settings for international intrigue. The Bourne Ultimatum continues that tradition, setting key sequences in Madrid and London. Bourne then ventures off the Continent for the first time, traveling first to North Africa (another classic spy location) and then New York.
Tangier is a perfect city for spies, and Greengrass and Director of Photog-raphy Oliver Wood make the city look beautiful and romantic. Its narrow, hilly streets, crowded rooftops and Europe-meets-Africa architecture all lend immensely to the movie’s most satisfying chase scene. The city looks just as good as it did in the heyday of the Eurospy genre, as captured in Espionage In Tangiers, but the modern day action in Bourne is far more exciting than anything that happened in that movie. The city is put to much better use.
Bourne pursues an assassin named Desh through the crowded streets of Tangier, first on motorcycle (which he rides not only down but up some of the city’s bustling stairways!), and then on foot. The foot chase is especially spectacular, a perfect blend of action and setting. (To me, this is one of the key ingredients of a good spy movie: a symbiotic relationship between elaborate action and exotic setting, and it’s very rarely achieved!) Bourne manages to keep pace with Desh from afar, following the street-bound assassin from the city’s iconic rooftops, which bristle with inconvenient antennas. After making the aforementioned jump into the building where Desh is about to kill Bourne’s only friend, the two killers engage in some of the most intense hand-to-hand combat ever filmed. This sequence is truly the modern-day equivalent of Sean Connery’s close-quarters fight with Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love. It seems to last forever (in a good way), and I found myself holding my breath. Bourne incorporates every makeshift weapon at his disposal, improvising with things as innocuous as a hand towel and even a book. Each time I’ve seen this movie so far, the audience has cheered at this fight’s conclusion. The action in The Bourne Ultimatum is amazing across the board, and there were multiple moments that elicited such a response.
Matt Damon has really learned to move like a man who can master any situation, and imbue Bourne with an unrivaled sense of "badassery." Take, for example, the scene in London’s Charing Cross Station wherein Bourne encounters two members of a CIA hit squad (who are after him and his contact) in a stairwell. Bourne moves so fast and with such decisiveness that the men don’t even know what hit them, and the burst of action is over almost as soon as it’s begun. But apparently length isn’t everything! As soon as they’ve digested what’s just occurred, this is another scene which sends the audience into spontaneous applause. Part of what makes the fight so cool is how quickly it’s over, in contrast to the lengthy fight with Desh which draws mileage from its duration.
David Straithairn makes an excellent villain, keeping a safe distance from the man he’s tracking while entrenched behind a bank of computer screens in New York. Of course, that doesn’t stop Bourne from taking the fight to him, which he does, culminating a not-quite face-to-face confrontation in which it seems like Damon speaks more dialogue than in the entire rest of the movie! (And it’s still not that much.) Bourne gets a rare punchline in here, and once more the audience applauded, with not a single punch thrown.
There are enough oblique references to real world politics and the war in Iraq to make Matt Damon believe he’s doing something smarter than Bond (a topic he won’t shut up about!) and lead a few critics to give the marketers that "thinking man’s action movie" quote they’ve been throwing around, but for the most part Bourne remains action-packed, escapist entertainment and nothing more. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, Matt Damon! Audiences love action-packed escapism! (This audience member enough so to devote a blog to the subject, more or less.) Damon and Greengrass should be proud to have made such an excellent action movie, and I really hope that Universal is able to convince the star to return for a fourth outing, even though he’s been pretty vocal in his aversion to such a prospect.
The Bourne Ultimatum is the perfect 21st century equivalent to the best of the Sixties Eurospy genre. It offers everything you could want out of a Eurospy movie (breathtaking action, exotic locations, a stoic, ass-kicking hero, and even a beautiful woman–though it could honestly use a few more of those...), and it does so at a breakneck, modern-day pace with state of the art, modern-day technology. (And, like the Eurospy flicks of old, it owes it all to 007, even in the instances where Bourne outperforms his progenitor. I wish the filmmakers and the critics at large would remember that!) There’s something for every spy fan in The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s definitely worth repeat viewings in the theater.
*Granted, this was a contractual obligation to Fleming.