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.