There are actually three screenwriters credited for The Bourne Ultimatum, though it's hard to imagine what exactly they all did to earn their paycheck. "You don't remember anything, do you?" "It's Bourne." "It ends here." [insert car chase] That doesn't mean that this third installment of the popular shaky-cam travelogue spy thriller series doesn't deliver all that it's intended to, and occasionally more, it just means that you're more likely to hear barked-out commands or the sound of squealing tires and shattering glass than two or more actors exchanging full sentences as part of a conversation. This is a film that asks exactly how much traditional storytelling structure can you cleave away and still have a coherent and engaging piece of work? The answer: Nearly all of it.
Coming off last year's abysmally underrated United 93
, director Paul Greengrass
thankfully returns for his second film in the series about the titular amnesiac CIA-trained assassin (Matt Damon
) with identity issues. Although the resulting film is not nearly up to the hard-to-match bar set by the preceding film, The Bourne Supremacy, it's hard to imagine any other director currently working who would be able to keep the relentless pace delivered by Ultimatum. Unfortunately, it's also all too easy to see that the filmmakers and Damon are coasting when they could be soaring. Article continues below
The stripped-down storyline that powers the film with motorized intensity concerns Bourne's identity. Having lost his girlfriend in the previous film, and spent a few years now running from various rogue CIA elements who want to eliminate an embarrassment before it can cause them any political damage, at film's start Bourne is now hot on the trail of his missing identity. It's clear that somebody inside the Agency is talking, as Bourne is reading stories about himself in The Guardian by an investigative journalist (Paddy Considine
, nicely twitchy) who must have a highly placed source. Those previously mentioned rogue Agency elements are pretty hot to keep Bourne away from the secret program that created brainwashed killing machines like himself, and so the assassins -- a number of whom seem as relentlessly lethal and mindless as Bourne himself, an interesting twist -- come out of the woodwork to give chase in a variety of locations, from Tangiers to midtown Manhattan to an extended and exceptionally taut chase and surveillance sequence set in London's cavernous, clamoring Waterloo Station. Needless to say, by brains and brawn, Bourne burrows ever closer to discovering the true secret of his identity that's been eluding him as he races from one exotic European locale to another.
It would be ludicrous to say that The Bourne Ultimatum is not a thriller worth notice. Greengrass's hyperfluid direction and Oliver Wood's documentary-style cinematography make for an addictive mix, a pared-down action series for the post-9/11 era, where it's more about speed, lethality, and moral grey zones and less about cartoonish villains and sarcastic quips. But there's a limit to how far you can push this style, and this film flirts with that limit quite seriously. There are long stretches where little to no dialogue is provided beyond shouted directions to the thankless drones monitoring surveillance footage for the CIA as they track Bourne around the globe. Once Bourne gets closer to his target (the occasional pained flashback cutting in, giving glimpses of the training program that turned him into the killer he currently is), it's difficult to feel the necessary emotional impact for him, since the series has worked so hard at turning him into such a robotic entity.
It's much easier to impress an audience with masterfully assembled chases or killer martial arts moves -- and there's a couple of extraordinarily bruising fight scenes here that are unlike anything Hollywood has produced in quite a while -- than it is to get that audience to feel a human empathy for the man negotiating all that lethal territory. The audience may clap for Bourne when he executes a particularly smart maneuver (has there ever been a screen spy who has so flawlessly mixed graceful cunning with predatory nerve?) but will they feel for him when he's confronted by a woman he loved from the past but whom the amnesia has erased from his mind? Does it even matter? Probably not; a fourth film is most likely on the way, but it would be nice if, in the future, the filmmakers remembered that Bourne was human, and treated him as such.