The hyper-kinetic, thoughtful capper to the Jason Bourne trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum signified a revolution in the action genre — and we’re still feeling its effects.
Do you even know why you’re supposed to kill me? Look at us. Look at what they make you give.
2002’s The Bourne Identity was a perfectly entertaining film, giving “pretty boy” Matt Damon a murkier, more action-intensive role than we’d ever seen him play before. The story of a black ops agent recovering from amnesia — and trying to figure out who he is, why he has these skills, and why people are trying to kill him — was not without its logical pitfalls, but Damon’s presence in the role along with steady direction from Doug Liman made Identity a sleeper hit, and gave Universal a new franchise.
When Liman elected not to return for the next installment, the English director Paul Greengrass was brought in. He ended up elevating the series into the pantheon of modern action films, bringing a raw and almost documentary-esque aesthetic (honed on his work on Bloody Sunday, and later United 93) that was so successful, Hollywood has been imitating it ever since. But it’s more than the (occasionally criticized) handheld camerawork and lightning-fast editing: there’s a real verisimilitude in these films, a brutal realism exhibited where other “spy movies” live off of glossy effects shots and fancy gadgets. We love Jason Bourne because he’s a quick thinker, using simply whatever tools he has available (a screwdriver, a toaster, a book), to outwit and out-maneuver his adversaries. He may be highly trained, but he’s still just a guy — not unlike 24‘s Jack Bauer — who will do whatever it takes, only instead of saving the world, he just wants to find peace.
Even the venerable old-guard of the genre, James Bond himself, got a stylistic makeover with Casino Royale, which debuted two years after The Bourne Supremacy and made heavy use of the latter’s grounded realism. Now moving cameras, quick cuts, and a subtly underplayed central performance were not only acceptable, but actually preferred in the 21st century. A hero that’s “cool” for not always being cool; we feel every hit, allow his suit to get dirty, and realize that he’s not completely infallible — all things that make Bourne, Bond, or Bauer more relatable to the audience.
Again, none of that matters if the screenplay’s not any good, or if the sequences aren’t well constructed. Fortunately, with Greengrass at the helm and Tony Gilroy at the typewriter, Supremacy and Ultimatum had that in spades. In the third film, Jason has long figured out who he is, and simply wants the government to leave him alone after the death of his girlfriend Marie. Of course, they still think he’s a threat — not just to national security, but to their careers — and are determined to bring him down anyway. Gilroy makes the fascinating decision to run some events of the third film in parallel with the second, which deepens some characters (like Joan Allen’s Deputy Director Landy), and connect some dots that we didn’t even realize were connected.
The screenplay also has a clear agenda with regards to unilateral decisions by the CIA and other agencies, a topic that became (and still is) the subject of debate in the years following 9/11. That CIA Director Vosen (David Strathairn, perfectly slimy) can, with no accountability, issue rendition protocols and standing kill orders — on US assets, no less — is protested openly by Landy and others, and raises questions about where “protecting the homeland” ends and “violating human rights” begins. Fortunately, Bourne is able to elude every trap and make Vosen look foolish in the process, at one point calling him directly from Vosen’s own office. There aren’t many instances of levity, but Greengrass and Gilroy make them count.
Part of the Bourne series’ appeal is its globetrotting nature, and Ultimatum has setpieces in London, Madrid, Moscow, Tangier, and more. It’s to Greengrass’s credit that the film is shot on location, often in real crowd situations, which gives the chases a journalistic feeling. Each sequence expertly builds tension, raising pulses as the camera flies along Moroccan rooftops alongside Bourne, following him as he jumps through windows, and placing you claustrophobically in the middle of the action of Waterloo station and the streets of New York City. It’s a gritty, often visceral experience. The movements are almost too fast to comprehend, but the scenes are staged so well that you never get lost or confused. The fistfights are realistically brutal, and the car chases some of the most exciting and inventive ever seen on the screen.
In some sense, the plotting is almost irrelevant, or at least not held to the same degree of scrutiny because of how great the action is, but it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t waste time with unnecessary exposition or spell anything out for the audience — it leaps from one setpiece to the next, barely giving a chance to catch your breath. The moments of space it does take are well-used: we go deeper than ever into Bourne’s psychology, as he goes back to where it all began in an attempt to destroy Treadstone for good, and the final sequence is a wonderful callback to his duel with Clive Owen in the first film. In the end, Bourne is shot, falls off a building, and presumed dead…but we know better.
Featuring one of the decade’s most enduring characters, the Bourne trilogy is an instant classic of modern action filmmaking, with an increasingly-layered performance from Matt Damon and outstanding craft. It may have spawned legions of second- and third-rate imitators (even 2012’s The Bourne Legacy was a disappointment), but the “lightning-in-a-bottle” effect of these films has not diminished over time. Ultimatum ultimately won the Oscar for Best Film Editing, and I couldn’t have been happier–it’s a brilliant, dynamic ride.