It may seem odd to praise a big-budget action flick for its maturity, but Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Ultimatum unequivocally proves that a summer blockbuster needn't be brainless to be exciting. Unlike the overstuffed CG bravado of Spiderman, Pirates and Die Hard, this third (and, reportedly, last) chapter in the Jason Bourne saga is lean, mean and insanely entertaining.
Blissfully clocking in at less than two hours, the franchise's return redeems an otherwise disastrous summer at the multiplex. Few series have managed to maintain the quality of the Bourne movies, and this latest installment is arguably the best.
When director Doug Liman first began the series with The Bourne Identity, he turned in an expertly crafted action film that was decidedly low-tech, stripped down to its most basic elements: pulse-pounding melees, clockwork suspense, moral seriousness and precision storytelling. Gone were the preposterous set pieces, pricey CG effects, and bad one-liners that pollute the genre.
When Greengrass (United 93) took the helm of the second film (The Bourne Supremacy), he deepened and expanded the themes of the first, turning in a dark and brooding portrait of a killer forced to confront who he is and what he's done. Unlike the now-quaint Bond films, Jason Bourne isn't trying to save the world from cartoonish super-villains; he's a tormented killing machine struggling to regain both his identity and his humanity. The nerve-straining violence he experiences comes with an enormous psychological cost.
Picking up where the last film left off, Bourne (Matt Damon) continues his search for clues to his past and those who turned him into a living weapon. From Moscow to London to Madrid to Tangiers to New York, he plays an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with the CIA, repeatedly escaping the crosshairs of assassins. Once again, scheming agency bureaucrats have something to hide namely the program that created Bourne and its sadistic architect (Albert Finney). The always-excellent David Strathairn plays the armchair villain here and once again Pamela Landy (the wonderful but underused Joan Allen) smells something fishy in her office.
Sure, The Bourne Ultimatum relies on a high-tech surveillance bullpen to deliver exposition while filling the air with rapid-fire techno-babble, but Greengrass handles these scenes with deft and wit, using them to counterbalance his viscerally charged chase-fight scenes. Much of this territory has been covered before, but it's thrilling to watch Bourne outfox and outmaneuver his would-be captors and improvise his way out of impossible situations. (In this age of shameless government spying, there's something profoundly satisfying about a single person running circles around the most powerful spy agency in the world.)
Damon, as usual, underplays his role perfectly, delivering grim torment without melodrama and moves like a shark with blood in the water. His haunted, relentless and spring-coiled response to allies and enemies propels the film forward, always surging toward the next revelation or lethal confrontation.
Greengrass continues his jarring hand-held, quick-cut style to shooting action but has refined the approach. Lingering for a few extra seconds, he allows us to get our bearings before landing another blow. The violence is immediate, personal and highly kinetic, delivering a "you are there" sensation that rattles the senses.
What sets The Bourne Ultimatum apart from most of the Hollywood spy hokum, however, is its angry political subtext and sly allusions to perverted patriotism. Greengrass and the film's writers suggest that Jason Bourne is the product of hoodings and waterboarding, a young man whose devotion to his country was distorted by an untrustworthy government to perform immoral acts. As if to echo the sentiments of so many Americans disgusted by the events of the last six years, Joan Allen laments, "This isn't what we signed on for."
With its harrowing set pieces, razor-smart script and impeccable performances, Greengrass's film gives one hope that the summer blockbuster can be reborn as something as exciting as it is relevant.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.