The Bourne Ultimatum (review)

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Scary Spies

After 9/11 the people who think about these things — like me — looked around at the apparently impenetrable solemnity engulfing us and predicted the death of irony, the end of snark. There was no room left for sarcasm, it seemed. Turns out we found room again in the months after, and irony got a reprieve. Lately, though, that sense is growing stronger again, like we’ve gone way beyond the point at which snark feels right. Like it wasn’t 9/11 itself that was the death of irony but that everything that came after was doing its damned best to make you not wanna crack much of a joke about much of anything.
I mean: How do you snark about warrantless wiretapping, Guantanamo Bay, or the abdication of the press of its essential duties? If you want to make an action movie that feels as fresh as CNN, you don’t. Wait: scratch that. If you want to make an action movie that feels as fresh as CNN should — that is, absent celebrity gossip and missing white women and staged readings of White House press releases — there’s no room for sarcasm or jokey banter or winking asides when the going gets really tough

And so we have The Bourne Ultimatum. In a summer characterized by three-quels that at best can’t quite manage to surpass their progenitors and at worst make you wanna cry, here’s one that’s the best of its bunch. In a summer that has shown us, with Transformers, how newly deeply silly an action movie has to be to play in the current cultural environment, this one defines the other end of that spectrum of “kick-ass action movies of the late 00s”: if you can’t be deeply silly, you have to be deeply earnest. The in-between doesn’t work anymore (see Live Free or Die Hard).

Ultimatum is a masterpiece of breathless relentlessness, of spectacular yet lean-and-mean setpieces uncluttered by superfluous digressions or tangents — some long sequences rush by before you realize there hasn’t been a stitch of dialogue for twenty minutes — of sheer simplicity that nevertheless swells with urgent political undertones. Part of what makes Jason Bourne (Matt Damon: Ocean’s Thirteen, The Good Shepherd) — brainwashed black-ops professional killer for the CIA — a hero to our eyes is that he knows how to outwit the net of scrutiny that we are all subject to today: public surveillance cameras, intercepted phone calls. You want horrifying? The first major sequence in the film revolves around CIA geeks led by a particularly intense wonk played by David Strathairn (We Are Marshall, Good Night, and Good Luck.) conducting a surveillance operation in London… only they’re doing it from New York, in real time, juggling camera footage and reports from agents on the ground and bugged cell phone conversations. Implausible or not (I suspect that it probably doesn’t go far enough into the technological capabilities of the moment), it feels oh-so real.

Silencing the press. “Experimental interrogation.” Passport tracking. Ultimatum skips around the globe as it skips around torrid matters of vital import, barely landing in one world city and dispatching with one hot button before it’s moved on to the next. Boom! We’re in London, where Guardian reporter Simon Ross (the ever awesome Paddy Considine: Hot Fuzz, Cinderella Man) has gotten a little too close to the truth about Treadstone, the secret program that created Bourne and his ilk, and Blackbriar, the ever scarier sequel to Treadstone — Bourne’s got to get him to quit sniffing around, for Ross’s own good, at the same time he pumps Ross for info, because Bourne is all about ferreting out the truth about Bourne too. Boom! We’re in Madrid, where CIA nerd Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles: The Omen, Mona Lisa Smile) has another piece of the puzzle for Bourne. Boom! We’re in Morocco, where trackable cell phones set off a mighty and magnificent foot chase above the streets and through apartment houses. Boom! We’re in New York, in the secret urban lair of the CIA, where Bourne’s determination to make someone finally tell him who the hell he is ignites, of course, more chases — on foot, in cars — through busy streets, until he finally penetrates the web of deceit and manipulation and disdain for what used to be cherished American ideals of patriotism and freedom and integrity and gets his awful answers.

I think the only American flag to be found in Ultimatum stands on the desk of a CIA supervillain played by Scott Glenn (Freedom Writers, The Shipping News), who makes Strathairn’s wonk look like a hippie. I thought: How ironic. And then I thought, Maybe not.

Director Paul Greengrass (returning from The Bourne Supremacy) doesn’t linger on the political commentary. He and cinematographer Oliver Wood (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) are too busy dizzying us with their handheld camera work, like even they could barely stop to catch their breath and, you know, set up a tripod while they’re chasing around after Bourne. I know some moviegoers find it nauseating, actually, watching visuals this shaky, but I think it’s exhilarating. Action movies don’t get more you-are-there than this, and if there’s any genuine catharsis to be had from feeling as if you’re sharing a visceral experience with the characters on the scene — which is, I have no doubt, the appeal of really good action movies — this is how you achieve that. I was utterly exhausted by the end of Ultimatum, and that felt fantastic.

All the other stuff in the background, like that flag: Eh, not so much. But that’s how that should be, too.

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Sun, Aug 05, 2007 10:14pm

You know I laughed out loud at the giant FBI map room with all its sparkling equipment in “Live Free or Die Hard”? God, this movie was good. This review is great too. Except for the Transformers praise, which still drives me to drink (six shots of cheap vodka as I type this, not joking, and it’s ALL YOUR FAULT).

And for the record, it’s still possible to snark at the horrible issues of the day. Just ask Mr. Moore.

olivia little
olivia little
Sun, Aug 05, 2007 10:28pm

the bourne ultamatum is original but very fresh at the same time they really brought it to live with some moments everyone should see this the thing that really makes this great is the fact that it just draws you in and the sptacular ending but what makes it stand out is it doesn’t have all the unnessary cussing so even more people can come and enjoy the movie unlike LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD

Mon, Aug 06, 2007 11:21am

I’m just glad that i have a new favourite trilogy to add to my collection. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, LOTR, Bourne.

This is how a spy film should be. Ethan Hunt and James Bond, and Jack Bauer seem so fantasy-like now. I don’t think i’ll ever see a kickass everyman action hero that’s part McGuyver and part UFC champ again and that makes me sad.

Jason Bourne is the Indiana Jones of the 21st century.

Mon, Aug 06, 2007 12:06pm

The shaky cam is what has turned my friends off from the series, and I can admit in the previous film, a few sequences were over the top. But here it felt toned down just enough, that I was fine, that I could see Bourne’s thought process as it happens, as he procedes to come up with hundreds of ways to distract, hit and escape.

Mon, Aug 06, 2007 7:47pm

all the unnessary cussing so even more people can come

I’ll never understand this. It’s okay to fucking beat the goddamn shit out of some sorry ass motherfucker, as long as you call it “administering a disciplinary action upon the person of a miscreant”?

Mon, Aug 06, 2007 9:09pm

This felt like a real trilogy. Not the forced kind where the first one is a surprise hit and so the studios up the budget, do a lot of retcon and squeeze out two clunkers (see: POTC, The Matrix trilogy). No, this is a true trilogy.


Thinking about this one all day – I love how the last shot of the film is very similar to the first shot of the first film, i.e. Bourne floating in the sea after being shot. There are a lot of touches along the way, for instance, when Julia Stiles’ character is dying her hair, it was a virtually identical shot to the one in the first movie where Franka Potente is dying and cutting her hair.

But this time Bourne stops, and you can imagine him thinking about the last time he got involved with a woman. All this, without making any obvious references through flashbacks. And also, towards the end, Bourne is talking to the ‘asset’ sent to kill him and he says something very similar to what Clive Owen said to him as he lay dying – “Look at what they make you give.”

Brilliant film. Just really really great. I was stunned by the entire sequence in Morocco. I liked how they used that bit at the end of ‘Supremacy’ where Bourne is talking to Pamela Landy and incorporated it into this one seamlessly. And I absolutely loved the ending.

Mon, Aug 06, 2007 9:54pm

when Julia Stiles’ character is dying her hair, it was a virtually identical shot to the one in the first movie where Franka Potente is dying and cutting her hair.

Right. And you know when Bourne is watching Nicky dying her hair, he’s thinking about Maria. And then, what with Nicky’s hints (in the diner scene) that she and Jason had some sort of relationship before his amnesia, you wonder whether Maria actually somehow reminded Bourne of Nicky.

All very cool and cohesive.

Rob Vaux
Tue, Aug 07, 2007 1:34am

When I first saw that shot of Stiles with the bark hair in the preview, I actually thought it was Franka Potente. I said to myself “jeez, are they going to try to foist some lame-ass secret twin business on us?” I’m glad they didn’t (for obvious reasons) but the misperception says a lot about the filmmakers’ intent there.

Rob Vaux
Tue, Aug 07, 2007 1:36am

“Dark hair,” not “bark hair.” I’m just going to sleep it off now…

Tue, Aug 07, 2007 11:40am

Watching this movie, I realized that it made me much happier than Casino Royale. When you think about it, Casino Royale’s a real downer. Not just because of the lost love. It was because it concluded that Bond will never be anything more than Bond. Bourne is lucky enough that he will get to be more than just Jason Bourne. Casino Royale’s deceptively pessimistic, but The Bourne Ultimatum is the true crowd-pleaser underneath its ever-serious exterior.

Wed, Aug 15, 2007 12:31pm

This is the first Bourne film I’ve seen, it’s on my list to see the first two simce I’ve heard great things about them.

I found certain elements of this movie gripping – as much as any the cat and mouse footchase in Tangier. I really got the sense that these are people fleeing/fighting for their lives – with perhaps the minor issue that in movies people who are being chased always seem to take too long to grasp that a door is in fact locked.

I was less enthralled by other scenes. The big car chase in New York while full of action, is also plagued by typical obvious unrealities – cars simply can’t take that kind of abuse and keep on truckin’. Some kind of Hollywood voodoo that protects the suspension, rims, tires, wheel bearings, radiator, etc. until of course the most inopportune moment when reality is again allowed to run free.

Somehow the whole issue of innocent bystanders seems to be dismissed. Noone gets killed or maimed, there aren’t months and years of litigation, etc. Around here, one car gets sideswiped a/or someone is killed while the cops are chasing a bank robber and you hear about it in the news for months.

The dialogue and general dynamic between Vosen and Landy – the whole “Good black bag operative/Bad black bag operative” seemed cliche’d, contrived and comic-bookish to me. And since when are those committing indiscretions at the CIA so publicly pilloried? Doesn’t the gubbmint do their best to hush up this kind of thing?

It always bugs me when sheer stupidity is used to move a story line along – horror movies are famous for this. Bourne and reporter Simon Ross’s escape started out fine but then twice Ross stupidly ignores Bourne’s instructions and you can see where it’s headed a mile away. Ross had just watched Bourne take on and dispatch what, 5 or 6 guys singlehandedly? And he adeptly directed their movements, clearly demonstrating he knew what he was doing in keeping them alive.

And then at critical moments Ross ignores Bourne’s instructions. Just like in horror movies when someone displays this degree of dumb, I start to root for the bad guys. Jeezus, good, he’s an idiot, take him out of the gene pool.

Something that wasn’t clear to me was how Nicky Parsons came to be in that office to begin with. I didn’t get the sense that she was part of the first team sent in – certainly not with a handbag slung over her shoulder IIRC.

The bit about Bourne misdirecting the CIA folks to where he was to meet Landy at 415 E 71st seemed awkward to me. What, did they leave the front door swinging open and noone to watch over the ultra top-secret offices? Dunno, just didn’t ring true. It could have been a clever bit of business if it had been handled better.

All in all, I thought it had excellent moments but I just didn’t find it to be the perfect movie many others seem to.

Sat, Aug 18, 2007 8:27pm

I think it’s safe to say that this movie now stands with Terminator 2 and Aliens as the best action movies of all time

Sat, Aug 18, 2007 8:34pm

the tension on the scene where bourne was racing through the rooftops to stop desh from killing nicky was incredible

but I’m a little dissapointed that even two thirds into the year this movie didn’t make your top ten

surely is better than 28 weeks later (very good) and hairspray (OK)

Sun, Aug 19, 2007 11:59am

It’s pretty damn close to the top 10!

This is indeed an extraordinarily stylish movie: I’m just not convinced it’s anything more than that. It might actually be ranked a little too high…

Sun, Aug 19, 2007 4:52pm

I’ll agree with Robert that this film was definitely one to test your willing suspension of disbelief. But what I noticed even more was that it was absolutely, completely humorless. Certainly Bourne doesn’t need to be shouting Yippie Kai Yay M***R at every opportunity, but somebody could have cracked a joke.

My daughter said she was getting nauseated by the camera movement, but I don’t think that was a critical judgment, I think it was a physiological reaction. To me it seemed as if Greengrass got caught up in his own style; once he’d set the pattern, to back off would have slowed the movie down to where the plot holes would show through.

Overall, my own SOD held out. The action sequences really are engrossing, but watch “Syriana” if you want a realistic indictment of American intelligence agencies.