“The Bourne Ultimatum” (****)
“The Bourne Ultimatum” is the most riveting, most creative, most stimulating film of what has already proven itself to be a thoroughly engaging series of films. Spinning author Robert Ludlum’s spy novel trilogy away from its Cold War settings and into a modernized realm, the adaptations – writer Tony Gilroy the common denominator at every step – have been nothing short of sizzling in their willingness to stray, while remaining true to the essence of the novels and their captivating central character. With this, the final film based directly upon the work Ludlum fashioned, director Paul Greengrass has managed to provide one of those rare movie delights: a franchise that bested itself with each subsequent installment.
“Ultimatum” picks up right where we left off three years ago. At the end of 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” amnesia-stricken CIA operative Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) had exacted a level of revenge against the Agency operation Treadstone that molded him into an assassin and murdered his girlfriend, indeed his only friend in the world, Marie (Franka Potente). Still yearning for total recall and left with a considerable amount of unfinished business, we are here introduced to a Bourne driven and determined to find the answers he’s searched for over the course of the last two films.
The Bourne saga has spilled onto the pages of England’s Guardian newspaper at the start of the film. Reporter Sam Ross (Paddy Considine) has cranked out a series of stories detailing the assassin’s exploits and pieces of his origin, obviously having been fed deep-inside information from some valuable source. Whoever the source is, he or she is someone who’s acquaintance Bourne would surely like to make. And as the big first act sequence of action and suspense, Bourne’s confrontation with Ross makes for the most dynamic and enthralling set piece of the entire trilogy – with nary an explosion or vehicular travesty in sight.
Through his investigation, Ross stumbled onto Treadstone’s remnants and replacement operation, Blackbriar, headed up by the cold and statuesque Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). Vosen seems to be the film’s resident Alexander Conklin (as portrayed by Chris Cooper in “The Bourne Identity”) until the narrative reveals his deeper and more fibrous connections to the events of the series. Strathairn’s performance is so honed, so doused in impenetrable realism that one nearly wonders if the actor has some level of experience with tracking and detaining a renegade soldier of espionage.
Also joining the cast in all-too-brief performances are Scott Glenn as another dirty high-ranking CIA official and Albert Finney as the architect of Treadstone. Joan Allen returns as the heat-seeking Pamela Landy along with Julia Stiles, given some extra yardage this time around in the role of Nikki Parsons. And, in keeping with typicality, an array of assassins and operatives fills the seams, faceless individuals casually referred to as “assets,” all joining the chorus in a menagerie for Bourne to twist, mold, manipulate and destroy, all to an audience’s movie-going delight.
“The Bourne Ultimatum” finds a certain level of genius in a screenplay that combines Gilroy’s talents with such stand-out scribes as Tom Stoppard and Paul Attanasio. The elaborate nature of each and every set piece is a crash course in visual storytelling of the highest expertise, moments that are sure to induce more than a few “I can’t believe that just happened” chuckles of expelled nervousness from an armrest-gripping audience. The script bends itself into the fabric of “The Bourne Supremacy” in one scene that, for close followers of the series, will have them nearly lifted from their seats, not only due to what they are witnessing, but due to the instant indication of what (and when) they have been watching unfold for the past hour and change. This is quite plainly filmmaking of the tallest order.
Matt Damon’s most demanding performance of the series perhaps still resides with “The Bourne Identity,” a film that represented his character’s slow understanding of what he was capable of. “The Bourne Supremacy” gave us a chance to see him let lose even further with those capabilities, but here we see the actor perform as a well-oiled machine of singular drive and purpose. Jason Bourne has become the role by which Damon’s early career will be defined. What James Bond was to Sean Connery, what Michael Corleone was to Al Pacino, Jason Bourne has become for Matt Damon.
The surrounding cast puts forth a performance befitting the most revered of ensemble work. As mentioned, David Strathairn is a self-guided missile with pathological panache to spare. Joan Allen finds herself in a different place this time, picking up the pieces rather than seeking Bourne’s head on a platter. Julia Stiles manages a heart-felt supporting turn, while Albert Finney strikes a few solid notes in his third act revelations. But let us face it. The star of the Bourne franchise has become the man at the helm.
Arguably the most exciting new talent of the medium, director Paul Greengrass has proven a level of competence in both low-budget and high-budget situations that is staggering. Furthermore, he seems fully capable of translating his independent characteristics to films backed by a larger checking account. He has already felt the sting of losing a high-profile gig (“Watchmen,” Paramount’s loss at a time of transition for the studio), received an Academy Award nomination for what may long be considered the definitive cinematic account of 9/11 (“United 93”) and cranked out 66% of what could come to be considered one of the great film trilogies on record. And the guy’s only getting warmed up.
Greengrass’s next effort, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” will find the director partnered with Damon yet again in an adaptation from Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s account of the postwar administration of Iraq. If he brings an ounce of the dedication and tenacity to this production as he has afforded the Bourne franchise, we might be looking at another definitive account of America’s recent plight – from a Brit, no less. But here and now, “The Bourne Ultimatum” has positioned itself as a jewel in the cinematic crown of 2007. I don’t know about you, but this is why I go to the movies.