Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) limps along a snowy Moscow street, trying to elude the police. But they quickly spot him and he has to evade them before making his way into Western Europe. There, he reads a story in the Guardian, written by columnist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine, “In America”), about him, the death of his girlfriend in India and more. Clearly, this reporter has talked to someone who knows a lot of secrets. He arranges to meet Ross, but a covert arm of the FBI, led by Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) has also learned of Ross’ knowledge and wants him dead. Bourne spots the FBI agents at their designated meeting place and has to help Ross elude the men before they can meet. This leads to a terrific game of cat and mouse throughout Waterloo Train Station. Bourne eventually gets to talk to the reporter and learns about Operation Blackbriar, an extension of Project Treadwell, the project Bourne initially joined. Bourne’s next stop, Madrid, where the informant is located. Frustrated with his inability to stop Bourne, Vosen brings in Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) to help track the elusive agent. In Madrid, Bourne encounters Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who was reassigned to this station after their last encounter. She decides to help him as much as possible, and they momentarily throw Vosen off the track. But they are now on the run. With every step, Bourne’s memory comes back to him and he soon remembers everything. EVERYTHING. Leading him back to New York. Leading him back to Vosen, Landy and Blackfriar.
Picking up basically where “Supremacy” left off, director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”, “United 93”), writer Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Identity”, “Supremacy” and “Ultimatum”) and star Matt Damon bring us to the conclusion of this fantastic trilogy.
Even with two different directors working on the series, all three films have had remarkable consistency. If anything, Greengrass brings a more frantic style of cinematography to the films he has directed. How does he do this? With a lot of handheld camera work. This may turn some people off, in “Ultimatum”, I counted maybe two shots that were not done with a handheld camera, but this technique works very favorably for this type of film. Using a handheld camera does two things; it gives us the eye of the surveillance watching Bourne and all of his counterparts and it makes everything very close to us, a little more frantic and more dangerous. Because Bourne is always being watched, or more accurately, someone is always trying to watch him, the handheld camera gives us the feel of surveillance cameras swooping through train stations and public places trying to pick up the subject. One of the more memorable scenes in “Ultimatum” shows Vosen (Strathairn) and his team, in New York, using all of their tools and tricks to track the Guardian reporter in London. They make it look so easy, and I’m sure this isn’t far from the truth. Since Bourne is trying to meet with the reporter, he is also aware of their tricks and has to choreograph the meeting, getting the reporter into a safe place, helping him to elude the surveillance. It is a nifty piece of cat and mouse action. Throughout the film, the camera remains very close to Bourne and when he has conversations with people, we see them from over his shoulder, or vice versa. As they talk, the camera will shift a little and the subjects shoulder fills in more of the frame, giving us a small view of Bourne. Again, this helps to bring us into Bourne’s world, giving us a feel of the claustrophobic, dangerous quality his life has.
Because “Ultimatum” is about Bourne remembering things, and trying to get his life back, the character has to go through a lot of change. As Bourne learns more of the puzzle, his memories gradually return. Damon has a lot on his plate to make this part of the character believable while the film continues to deliver all of the action we are hoping for. Bourne has been a killer and covert agent for a long time, so his emotions aren’t going to come flooding back to the surface. I don’t think he is capable of showing more than a little emotion at any one time. In “Supremacy”, when his girlfriend, Marie (Franka Potente, “Run Lola Run”) is killed in India, he is disturbed, but he never breaks down and cries. He doesn’t have time for this. The killers are soon after him and he has to keep moving. In “Ultimatum”, Bourne stops in Paris to tell her brother, Martin (Daniel Bruhl, “Goodbye, Lenin”) about her death. As Bourne speaks, he remains his normal self, but it is clear he is having difficulty relaying the events to her brother. Do they hug and provide comfort to one another? Of course not. Bourne can’t let his defenses down or show weakness. Yet, throughout, Damon manages to provide quick little glimpses of how all of this is affecting him. And the performance is entirely consistent with his character and the story.
Some of these glimpses give us the feeling that as Bourne’s memory returns, he realizes he doesn’t need to kill everyone. So he steps away from some people, people who don’t need to die for him to get to his next goal. As his memory returns, he realizes he has a conscience.
The action throughout is fantastic. From the cat and mouse sequence in Waterloo to a number of fights between Bourne and various assassins, he never has a chance to get a breath. Greengrass’ handheld camera also helps to make these scenes seem more dangerous and challenging, more intimate. Because we are so close to the action, we feel as though we are part of it, engaged in the action with Bourne as he uses his fist, knives, whatever he can get his hands on. Most of the action scenes involve hand to hand combat, and these are choreographed in such a way that helps us keep track of the action. Sure, it moves fast and furious, and we don’t always see the two characters faces, but we know who is where when it matters.
There is also a significant amount of other action in these films. In “Ultimatum”, this involves a car chase through New York with a unique and interesting beginning and finish.
“Ultimatum” is set against the backdrop of our current government, an institution that believes they need to watch anyone and everyone, they have the right to lock people up, to kill them, if they are even suspected of posing a threat to our nation. Greengrass and Gilroy integrate these ideas into the framework of the story, allowing Bourne to uncover the full details, giving us a believable, interesting look at what our government could be, may be capable of. But don’t question them. If you do, you are threatening the lives and safety of millions of Americans.
“The Bourne Ultimatum” caps off the best trilogy to come out of Hollywood in the last decade. Looking at some recent examples, each trilogy has at least one seriously flawed entry. “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Spiderman” each had dismal third entries in their series. “Ocean’s 12” didn’t have a very cohesive or interesting screenplay. The “Star Wars” prequels? Well, can anyone say they actually want to see any of those films again? “Mission Impossible”? A weak first film followed by two stronger films, all of which are from different directors who add their individual styles, so it isn’t a cohesive whole. If anything, each film in the “Bourne” series has built on the success of the previous entry, ratcheting the level of suspense, action and intrigue. Can a fourth “Bourne” become a reality?