The finest contemporary action-film franchise, the Bourne series, in which brooding amnesiac and CIA-trained former spy and assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is dragged on a three-film quest to discover his past, gets a fitting ending with The Bourne Ultimatum.
Helmed by British director Paul Greengrass, as was the second in the series, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum is as good as modern action filmmaking — of the non-gonzo variety — gets: kinetic and smart, thrilling yet clinging tightly to the edge of believability.
This globe-hopping finale opens in Moscow and traverses London, Turin, Tangiers, Paris, and Madrid before landing in New York City, the site where the company-man monster Jason Bourne was created.
As The Bourne Ultimatum begins, the fugitive Bourne is off the CIA grid again, but a London Guardian security reporter, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), is on the trail of his story with a deep-background CIA source who has firsthand knowledge of Bourne's identity. After returning from meeting his source in Madrid, Ross utters the word "Blackbriar" — an even more secretive extension of the black ops "Treadstone" program that animated the earlier films — into his cell phone and immediately trips the post-Patriot Act surveillance apparatus half a world away. This puts Bourne, who has been tracking Ross' stories, back on the grid and sets the film's plot in motion.
On the strength of both The Bourne Supremacy and the 9/11 drama United 93, Greengrass already had emerged as one of the most talented film technicians around, and Ultimatum seals it. The action pieces here are exhilaratingly tense and coherent. One involves Bourne detecting and manipulating CIA surveillance of Ross at London's Waterloo Station. Another is an extended cat-and-mouse sequence in Tangiers between Bourne and a CIA assassin that's draining viscerally and, crucially, emotionally as well. Only the finale in New York, where Bourne too easily infiltrates and escapes from what should be a well-guarded CIA facility, strains credibility.
The core dynamic here — as in Supremacy, but more so — is that of Bourne, the lone action figure, pitted against the entirety of CIA surveillance. Making this process-oriented approach so breathlessly exciting and realistic positions Bourne Ultimatum as not very different, technically, from United 93, where a similar dynamic yielded a tension that was more agonizing.
Ultimatum is also, in its own way, no less tied to recent political history, with the introduction of a deep-cover CIA anti-terrorism unit involved in all kinds of nasty stuff, including assassinations of American citizens. With new CIA heavies Albert Finney and David Strathairn almost doppelgangers for previous-film equivalents Brian Cox and Chris Cooper, it feels like Bourne Ultimatum is revisiting the CIA perspective of the earlier films to scrub a layer deeper into our post-9/11 compromises.
The Bourne Ultimatum