In a summer that sometimes seems entirely made up of what have come to be called “threequels,” we may now add Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum to the list. I’m not sure it’s the best of the lot (anybody who wants to try rating these third-in-a-series efforts in order, be my guest), but it is perhaps the most interesting. For that matter, I’m not sure whether or not the movie simply looks better than it is because it came out the same day as Underdog, Hot Rod and a film, Bratz, that is to movies what the bubonic plague is to good health. I’m sure it’s a good film, but I’m not convinced that it’s quite within spitting distance of greatness. I’m not even sure that it would be comprehensible to anyone who hadn’t seen the first two films, and I’m positive that it works better as a slam-bang third act than as a stand-alone creation.
There’s a fascinating irony to the fact that both director Greengrass and star Matt Damon come to this from having been separately involved in two overtly “important” and political films—United 93 (2006) and The Good Shepherd (2006) respectively—and yet have managed to make more of a statement with what could be categorized as nothing more than a preposterous action movie. Maybe it’s the freedom afforded them by the less serious form that doesn’t require either forced reverence or supposed historical accuracy. However, it might also be that messages, statements and other deep-dish concerns simply work better when they’re also entertaining—or, as in this case, when they remain relatively implicit.
Certainly, there’s nothing new in portraying the C.I.A. as a pretty reprehensible outfit that concerns itself not at all with any such niceties as morality, law or even common decency. And there’s absolutely nothing about the film’s screenplay—which is often filled with clichéd dialogue and the kind of shorthand necessary to keep the action going—that suggests much in the way of depth. That said, if one takes the view that the amnesiac Jason Bourne (Damon) finally uncovers the truth about himself, only to realize that he actually asked to be turned into a conscienceless killer, something else emerges. When he then realizes he was sold a bill of goods about America’s welfare and patriotism in order to put him into this mindset, the tone becomes very political indeed, and even uncomfortably relevant. The cleverest thing The Bourne Ultimatum does is to put this forth and then leave it alone. The viewer can chew on it or not.
In every other regard, the movie is an actioner that rarely pauses for breath. And it’s a very good actioner, though its essential status as nearly two-hours worth of chase sequences carries a price. By never stopping, the film never attains the illusion of weightiness of the first two movies as “thinking man’s” spy pictures (sort of the 21st-century equivalent of the Michael Caine Harry Palmer movies in the ‘60s). It’s really not possible to make a “thinking man’s” nonstop action flick—though in this case, there’s the residual heft from the previous entries.
As action goes, however, The Bourne Ultimatum pretty much scores—especially in a brilliantly staged and conceived sequence set in London’s Waterloo Station and an almost equally effective double-chase scene in the streets of Tangier. None of this is even remotely believable, mind you, but it seems more believable than the usual “exploding cinema” stuff in large part because the film eschews the one-liner approach. People get hurt. People die. In the case of the Tangier sequence, our knowledge of the history of the series imbues the question of who will live and who will die with genuine suspense.
The only downside to the action lies in Greengrass’ insistence on too much hand-held camera of the extremely shaky variety—to much the same degree he used in United 93. Yes, it gives the film a sense of immediacy, but it also topples over into a sense that the entire movie was shot with a motion-sickness cam. As a result, I’d strongly advise against sitting too near the screen, but all things considered, I’d definitely advise sitting somewhere in the theater where The Bourne Ultimatum is playing. Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action.