Even audiences new to the Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) spy thriller franchise will respond with compulsory excitement at the elaborately orchestrated chain of exhilarating chase sequences that lead up to a philosophically satisfying whopper of a climax. Paul Greengrass continues his directing duties after The Bourne Supremacy (Doug Liman directed The Bourne Identity, the first movie based on the novel by the late Robert Ludlum) and gets stellar results from returning cameraman Oliver Wood, editor Christopher Rouse and musical composer John Powell.
After losing his girlfriend Marie to an assassin in the last movie, former CIA hit man Bourne is hotter than ever to uncover his true identity, mysteriously erased from his brain. International locations like Moscow, Paris, Madrid and London change like a roulette-wheel ball as Bourne perpetually turns the tables on teams of kill squads ordered to snuff him out by CIA bigwig Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). Canny dialogue, solid performances, and virtuoso editing and scoring make The Bourne Ultimatum a thrill ride you won’t soon forget.
Bourne knows too much about systematic strategy, but almost nothing about his motivation for the precision killings that he commits on a daily basis in order to survive. The historical dilemma regarding his memory is a burning question that has fueled three films worth of fast-twitch brutality and mind-boggling car chases. Bourne operates purely on trained killer instinct and adrenaline, and yet he has a steel thread of mercy that occasionally shines. In effect, he is an archetype for the modern cinematic spy because he chases the action that chases him, albeit with humorless venom liberated by his utterly autonomous existence.
A Guardian newspaper article linking Bourne to a CIA black-ops group called “Blackbriar” draws him to London to question the journalist that wrote the piece. The hair-raising encounter that follows is a crash course in ducking CCTV surveillance cameras positioned around Waterloo station as viewed by Noah Vosen’s CIA headquarters, committed to stopping Bourne in his tracks.
CIA official Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) returns from the last Bourne movie to assist Vosen in trapping his quarry, but becomes suspect of the chief’s unethical treatment of the case. The interior female-inflected shift to Bourne’s side coincides with the return of suave CIA op Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) just after Bourne has efficiently finished off a goon squad inside CIA offices in Madrid.
Muted romantic sparks fly between Parsons and Bourne, and it’s their delicate acknowledgement and necessary disavowal of the attraction that underlies a super-action motorcycle and foot chase sequence that leads up to one of the most impressive hand-to-hand combat displays ever filmed. After surviving a car-bomb explosion and escaping from hordes of Spanish police, Bourne goes toe to toe with an agent sent by Vosen to kill him.
Within the tight confines of an otherwise unoccupied apartment, Bourne and his equally skilled opponent go at it with everything they’ve got. The scene is unaccompanied by music and only sound from the men’s mortally threatening grunts and blows punctuate the silence. Although the scene is filled with quick-cut editing, this is far from the music video-styled compositions that have wrecked innumerable features.
Instead, we get an intense representation of a life-or-death struggle where each man is fully invested in using everything at his disposal to kill the other. The episode promises to do for fight scenes what the car chase in Bullitt did for auto pursuits in every movie that followed.
The screenwriters do something magical in combining a Casablanca brand of romanticism with a determinedly 21st century tone of unrelenting pulsing action. But they go one further by delivering a thematically polished ending that embraces political and social commentary that cuts close to the bone of America’s manifold militarized social crises. The Jason Bournes of the world are out there, and they will eventually come home to roost. MTW